On March 31, 2014 an American citizen and former Marine crossed the United States/Mexico border with a truckload of guns and ammunition. He was promptly arrested by Mexican officials; it’s illegal to transport guns of any kind into the country.
The backlash was fierce and Facebook exploded with fiery rhetoric, Change.org petitions, and angry posts calling upon former President Obama to “free our Marine”. One of my Facebook friends was exceptionally outraged by this and her posts rambled on daily. I finally broke my self imposed rule and commented on her post, indicating something along the lines of the fact that he broke the law and what if it were the other way around? What if a Mexican citizen was caught crossing into the United States with a bunch of guns?
It seems that at some point during her tireless mission to get this guy out of Mexican prison she stumbled upon the fact that Mexico charges tourists and foreigners 28 USD as an exit tax. For her, this was the proverbial straw. She might not have invented #boycottmexico but she sure as hell used it a lot. 28 USD was a goddamn travesty, especially since Mexico had “our Marine” in custody.
The Price of Travel
Those of us who travel frequently know what an exit tax is and know that it’s generally included in the cost of airfare. It’s only when crossing by land that one physically hands over cash. It’s normal, all countries do it to some degree, and it’s just part of the way travel works.
Visas, on the other hand, are a different story. These require an application, an embassy visit, and a typically high fee. The amount of this fee is usually the same as the one your native country charges for the other country’s citizens for their visa.
It’s called a reciprocity fee. Many countries around the world don’t charge this fee to holders of specific passports. The countries that do charge this fee include Russia, China, and Azerbaijan. However, whether or not this fee even impacts your travel plans depends on the passport you carry.
Enter blue privilege.
The Power of the Passport
Citizens of the United States can currently visit 174 of the world’s countries with no visa requirements. You simply hand over that mighty blue passport, get your stamp, and go. It’s a privilege that most citizens take for granted; after all, shouldn’t the most powerful country in the world have unfettered access to the rest of the globe?
Well, I hate to break it to you but Germans can enter 177 countries visa free and citizens of the UK can enter 175 countries.
However, despite having nearly unlimited access to the entire world with a US passport in your hand fewer than 40% of US citizens have one. But, oddly enough, Americans rank second amongst the most well traveled people in the world. So those of us who do have passports use them.
But what if all of that changes? What if the powerful might of the blue passport shrivels in the wake of a world that’s becoming more and more wary of the United States?
Many US citizens have absolutely no idea how a visa process works. They don’t need to know; either they don’t travel or they’ve never traveled to a country that required they have one. However, I also shake my head at the fact that few US citizens know how applying for a US visa goes down.
Again, they have no idea. But I do. I’ve seen it in process.
While much of the United States is embroiled in the illegal immigration basket of snakes they try to at least grant a benevolent nod to those who do it “the right way”. Those who follow the proper channels to enter the United States with a proper visa stuck tightly to a page in their passport of another color.
There are many countries that fall under the Visa Waiver Program for the United States. This includes most of Europe and a handful of Asian and South American countries. However, it’s still not as easy as buying a plane ticket to New York City and waltzing through immigration. They still have to apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) which can be denied at the discretion of the US Department of State.
In theory this is the same thing as filling out the tourist card the flight attendant hands you with your last plastic cup of Coke before you land in another country. However, this is mostly viewed as a formality by the country you’re visiting and a nuisance for you. You don’t have a pen and those damn tray tables are textured so your handwriting looks like chicken scratch and if there’s turbulence you might as well wait until you’re in the immigration line.
However, for those people who live in a country that doesn’t take part in the visa waiver program, securing a US visa, even for tourism or to visit family, is a long, difficult, and expensive process. Paperwork, background checks, interviews, and lots and lots of money go into it and there’s still the risk you’ll be denied.
This is What Hope Looks Like
Outside of emergencies and lost passports people rarely have to visit an American embassy when they travel. I, however, have been in embassies in at least three countries for various reasons. However, it was our visit to the embassy in Lima, Peru that really showed me the human side of applying for a US visa.
Embassies are never nice places. They’re office buildings after all and tend to be drab. Lima’s is no different. However, as we left security and headed toward the area for citizen services we walked past an outdoor seating area. The seats were filled and dozens were standing, all clutching their little slip of numbered paper and waiting.
Winters in Lima are cold and dreary and that day was no exception. It was a day that should have been spent in front of a fire, coffee in hand. Yet here they were, the hopeful, dressed in their best clothes, eyes tired from the hours spent on the bus to reach Lima from some far flung Peruvian town, stacks of paperwork perched on restless knees.
There were older couples, perhaps hoping to visit a son or daughter who lucked out and now lives in the United States and maybe to finally meet their grandchild. There were families, maybe hoping for a trip to Disneyland. They’d probably saved for years to pay for it. There were the singles, perhaps defying the odds and receiving an acceptance letter from an American university and the only thing in the way of a brand new life is that precious visa.
Our business was taken care of relatively quickly and as we left they were still there. A few had moved up in the line a bit but not by much. Embassies are not only drab but they’re also notoriously slow and inefficient. Chances were good that some of these people would not get to see an embassy official that day. Chances were good that they’d have to make another appointment and come back and try again.
But they will come back, because they hope.
A lot of confusion and furor has arisen over the EU’s recent vote that wasn’t really a vote to begin requiring US citizens to apply for a visa to visit Europe, simply because the US opted to leave out five EU countries from the visa waiver program. This also made a lot of people think about our passports and what sort of future they have.
It made me think about blue privilege, the feeling we all have about almost literally being able to go anywhere in the world without a second thought. What if that blue privilege is taken away?
I have no way of knowing how the nature of travel will change in the near future. I don’t know how long I can claim blue privilege and use it freely.
But as we head south, with many borders ahead of us, I wonder if we have enough time. Enough time before we find ourselves on the hard plastic seats, clutching a number and a stack of paperwork. Because it could happen.
In today’s world of fear, extreme vetting, and travel bans being slapped down left and right you just never know.