penalizing ambition

Steve Clemon’s op-ed piece in the NY Times is all about the $100 visa application fee that international citizens have to pay, regardless of whether their visa is approved. The fee doesn’t vary from country to country, so it is disproportionately high in countries such as India. But $100 is a steep price to pay in any country.

In addition to the points brought up by Clemons, the delays in getting visas approved are ridiculous at US consulates in other countries. When I was interviewing at Caltech I met a student from Iran who told me he simply cannot go home because he would be delayed for a semester waiting for his visa there, whereas going to Mexico to renew is much easier.

A curious position I found myself in when reviewing graduate applications is that I was told to apply a much stricter standard to international applicants than I would for domestic applicants. I’m pretty sure they meant residents/nonresidents, but it may have also been citizen/non-citizen. I’m pretty sure that has to do with Berkeley being a state school, but I’ve been told that there is a lot of pressure to admit fewer international students even though they may be better candidates.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this yet — the visa thing I’m clearly against, but how to strike a balance between serving your constituency (US residents) and recruiting the best and the brightest (among all applicants) is tricky. It’s not really a case of affirmative action, so I don’t think the solutions should be the same. Although if you oppose affirmative action it seems that you should have to adopt the view of admitting only the best-qualified candidates regardless of nationality in order to remain philosophically consistent.

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0 thoughts on “penalizing ambition

  1. As I understand it from my friend the immigration paralegal, the delays in getting visas approved basically arises from the fact that, after 9/11, a more thorough review of visas, especially student visas, was required. However, this was an unfunded mandate to the consulates. They were asked to do more work, but not given any more personnel to do it.

    Clemon’s piece starts with a fundamental error that rejected visa applicants should not be required to pay the fee. He assumes this as an indisputable point, but it is in fact highly disputable. It is not unprecedented for unsuccessful applicants for legal (as opposed to purely economic) benefits from the government to be charged for filing their request. Patent applicants and trademark applicants are required to pay a fee, and don’t get the money back if their application is rejected. A visa is also a legal benefit from the U.S. government, namely, the right to legally enter the U.S. for a certain time and for a certain purpose. Non-refundable application fees also happen all the time in the private sector – mortgage fees come to mind immediately. One can reasonably debate the amount of the fee, but it does not offend any principle to require a non-refundable application fee.

    There’s also the idea that an application fee of some kind will discourage casual or trivial applicants. Again, the right amount of the fee can be debated, but the principle of having a fee does not seem offensive to me.

  2. I would argue that the size of the fee ($100) is too high a burden to place on applicants from countries such as India or China where the average income is so low. I don’t object in principle to there being some sort of fee, but to request what is possibly a non-fractional percentage of a student’s yearly income for an application fee seems a bit much.

  3. Then we’re probably in agreement. What jumped out at me from the piece, and what soured me on the rest of the argument, was his claim that there is something offensive in requiring an unsuccessful applicant to pay the fee too.

  4. Welcome to my life. The American Consul in Karachi, who is a good friend of minem and I were discussing this a while ago, especially in light of the fact that many US embassies and consulates in several countries have centralised their operations. For example, of the three consulates in Pakistan, only the Islamabad one offers visa services (this has been going on for about a decade); the Karachi and Lahore consulates just…well, do mostly administrative work.

    Regardless, as someone who earns in rupees, and is painfully aware of how expensive an unsuccessful visa application can be (including as it does, a flight to the main ambassadorial post for interviews, which can often extend over the course of several days), I think that if nothing else, the fee structure needs to be drastically revised.

  5. The ridiculous fee is also amended by US$60 more in some countries such as Brasil. There the consulate charges US$60 for you to be able to walk into the consulate.

    Regarding admissions, one can always think there is some form of indirect compensation in admiting an international student, who ends up generating a lot of economic worth once out of school. But there is also the “I’ pay state taxes” feeling to balance out… Hard issue. But who knows, in the not so distant future, schools around the world will start also accepting americans :).

  6. The discussion you are having on this site is quite constructive and serious, and I appreciate the attention to my NY Times article. I want to clarify one misunderstanding by one of your posters. While I believe that returning the fee to rejected applicants would be a good incentive to get application rates back up to what the State Department expected before 9-11 occurred, I am quite open to many other alternatives – including returning a portion of the fee as there clearly are processing costs. I agree with the first post that striking a balance between getting smart, talented people into the country who will be net positives for the nation vs. blocking those who are threats or who may be unproductive is the key issue. After 9-11, applications from non-visa waivered nations fell from an anticipated 10.5 million applicants to about 6.5 million. This huge drop also caused financial stress in Consular Affairs as it also meant a loss in income of $400 million. Thus they raised the fee to a higher level to try to compensate for some of this loss. On top of that, for reasons I can’t comprehend, the rejection rate (on a percentage basis) of those applying for non-immigrant visas also climbed. This is a perfect storm of negative factors essentially telling talented people in the world (well, mainly developing nations) to pursue their interests elsewhere. I don’t mean to go on so long — but wanted to make clear what my short NY Times article did not. I am in favor of security and screening the bad out from the good among those who want to come here — but part of our future national security and welfare depends on a continual inflow of talent into this country. The fee issue is something few people in this nation knew about. Very few realize that we charge so high a fee — and few realize that we kept that fee when we rejected applicants. And for those who support this behavior, all I can say is to remember that when China, India, Brazil, Poland, and many other nations increase their own application fees to $100 (although it ought to be $500 or $1000 to equal the economic weight to individuals) and then reject that American’s visit to that country. Few will do this because it is in their interest to have Americans travel, invest, and otherwise contribute to their economy. In any case, thanks for the constructive back and forth which I have found useful as I’ve read through your comments.

    Steven Clemons

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