Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Immigration reform: Latin American Tourists Come to Spend, Not Stay

Reading Time: 3 minutes

As the U.S. Congress continues discussions on immigration reform, every interest group is struggling to get their respective voice heard. As with everything in Congress, money talks. To that end, the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan Congressional ombudsman, reported last week that the Senate bill currently under consideration could inject nearly $900 billion into the government’s yawning budget deficits over the next 20 years. 

But a more subtle provision of the immigration bill is more streamlined non-immigrant visa processing, including sweetheart constituency provisions and political favors for groups ranging from Polish tourists to Canadian retirees. But it must not be overlooked how Latin American tourists create real value for the American economy and expand the country’s soft power in a crucial region. 

Many tourists, particularly those from visa-waiver countries in Europe and select other countries, take for granted that they can hop on a plane to the U.S. with no more than a passport in hand and a brief online registration. In 2011, nearly 20 million of these visitors came to the United States.

But for tourists from across Latin America, the process involves a long wait for an appointment, a hefty fee to pay regardless of the visa decision, and a stressful interview about their intentions to visit. Many choose not to go through the process because of the arduous process, others sour on visiting the U.S. after being rejected, and still many more are unable to plan and pay for trips given the uncertainty and randomness of the visa process. Governments have soured too, with many countries in the region requiring visas and reciprocity fees for U.S. tourists, giving Americans a taste of their own medicine.

In 2012, more than 8 million nonimmigrant tourist visas (those not eligible for the Visa Waiver Program) were issued by the State Department, up significantly from previous years, making this a lucrative opportunity for tourist-oriented businesses in the U.S. to capitalize on the growth. 

It only takes a brief look at the numbers to show how central Latin Americans are to the State Department’s visa operations and to the value of foreign tourism in the United States. Last year, of the 8,000,000 nonimmigrant visas issued, nearly 50 percent of the global total were issued to Latin Americans. Compare that to Latin America’s less than 10 percent share of world population, and the statistics become even more eye-popping.

Of the State Department’s top-10 visa-issuing posts, seven were in Latin America, only to be outdone by three posts in China. It stands to reason that, on the back of an executive order to increase tourism, the State Department is posting thousands of Americans with Spanish and Portuguese language skills to consular departments to facilitate visa issuance.

Simply put, Latin Americans are coming in record numbers and spending record amounts of money. As a recent Commerce Department report stated:

“Countries among the top 20 with the largest increase in 2012 from the previous year were: China (+35 percent), Colombia (+21 percent), Venezuela and Argentina (both up +20 percent), and Brazil (+ 19 percent). All five countries set records for visits to the United States in 2012.”

The ITA, in a linked release on tourism from Brazil, India and China, reports “on average, each tourist that we attract from these areas will spend $4,000 during their stay in the United States”. 

In fact, several major South American countries boast some of the lowest nonimmigrant (B) visa refusal rates in the world, with Argentina at 1.5 percent of all applicants, Brazil at 3.2 percent of all applicants and Chile at 2.8 percent of all applicants. 

While many in Congress and across the country conflate the issue with their views on the millions of documented and undocumented Latino migrants in the U.S., in many ways they betray outdated views on Latin America. How many Americans would know that last year, for the first time, more Mexicans left the United States than entered?

Instead of seeing a region with hundreds of millions of would-be immigrants to the United States, Americans should be seeing the major opportunity for trade and diplomacy in an easier entry experience for Latin American tourists. Combined with the enhanced security and border policies and increased penalties for those who break the law, the opportunity is clear for Americans and Latin Americans alike to see a lot more of one another.

Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter