WASHINGTON -- Anybody in Florida who makes a living from tourism stands to gain from a surge of foreign visitors – and their spending money – if an immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate last week becomes law.
Little-noticed provisions would make it quicker and easier for visitors to enter the country and avoid long waits at Florida's busy airports and seaports. The same bill intended to block foreigners from entering or staying illegally is also designed to help legitimate travelers come and go without hassles.
That's potentially good news for South and Central Florida's economy, which thrives on international tourism, if the overall measure – or at least the travel provisions – can pass the U.S. House.
"For South Florida, it opens up an international market that has had huge growth, especially from Central and South America. And that market is very anxious to be here," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The critical issue for us is that people can leave their country without a long wait time [for a visa], and when they get here are not herded like cattle."
She and travel promoters in Central Florida predict that the immigration bill would widen the flow of arrivals from populous nations like Brazil and Argentina and lead to new flocks of visitors, with shopping bags in hand, from nations like China and India.
"It will make a big difference," said George Aguel, a former Disney executive and now CEO of Visit Orlando. "Folks from those countries have a decision to make: I can go to this other country or go to the U.S. Well, to go to the U.S. is kind of hard. You have to go through a lot of steps. It takes a longer time. We're hoping that out of this [legislation] will come efforts to greatly reduce those challenges and obstacles."
Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, however, the immigration bill faces fierce opposition from Republican conservatives in the House. Leaders have said they may break the Senate's omnibus package into a series of bills, in part because of resistance to its "pathway to citizenship" for the 11 million people now here illegally.
The Senate's bill tries to balance security needs and immigration control with efficient ways to get people in and out. The goal is to identify visitors who over-stay their visas – who now make up an estimated 40 percent of illegal immigrants – without discouraging business and leisure travel.
A key provision would require "biometric" identification systems, such as a fingerprint or eye scan, to track comings and goings and identify those who remain here illegally. Homeland Security officials would install biometric systems within two years at the 10 busiest airports – including Miami – and within six years at the 30 busiest airports, including Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood, Orlando and Tampa.
But the Senate bill also includes a host of provisions to make international travel easier. It would:
• Expand the Visa Waiver Program by empowering the secretary of Homeland Security to drop the usual visa requirement for visitors from certain nations, such as Brazil or Argentina. To get the waiver, those nations would have to sign a security agreement and show that less than 3 percent of their travelers have over-stayed their visas.
• Expand the Global Entry Program, which allows low-risk travelers to get approval before departure for swift passage through Customs checkpoints. The bill would extend the program to groups – such as athletic teams – not just individuals.
• Set up a pilot project to conduct interviews for visa requests via videotape, rather than require personal appearances at a limited number of locations in other countries.
• Provide a "retiree visa" that lasts 240 days for Canadians 55 and older who own or rent a U.S. residence, up from the current 180-day limit. More than 3 million Canadians visited Florida last year, and a longer visa for older visitors could entice more to stay longer.
• Extend indefinitely the Travel Promotion Act, now due to expire in 2015, which spends up to $100 million a year, matched by the travel industry, to market Florida and other U.S. destinations abroad. Part of this money comes from fees paid by travelers.
• Add 3,500 Customs and Border agents, which could greatly reduce wait times for travelers in Miami and other clogged entry points.
The bill sets a goal of reducing wait times at airports to 30 minutes for 80 percent of international passengers and 45 minutes for all of them by 2016.
"It's unacceptable to have people waiting on the tarmac because there aren't enough officers in the inspection area to process them," said Patricia Rojas-Ungár, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. "Or to have people waiting in the inspection area for two or three hours after getting off a seven-hour flight to get [a connecting flight] to Orlando, Florida."
Florida promoters are excited about the prospect of more international travelers because they stay longer and spend more money than domestic visitors.
Nearly 500,000 Brazilians came to the Orlando area last year and stayed for an average of 10 days, twice as long as U.S. visitors, according to Visit Orlando. Some of them shopped for vacation homes. A visa waiver would encourage repeat visits, generating more income.