For a long time Miami has been the de facto capital of Latin America. The infrastructure is good (including the cultural infrastructure that is particularly hospitable to Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking visitors), taxes and other costs are relatively low and official corruption isn’t a serious problem. Miami is also conveniently located within a couple of hours of most of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America and is on the way to the northeastern United States and Europe.
But now Miami faces increased competition. A recent WSJ article (subscription only) describes how Panama City is gaining market share as both a regional travel hub and banking and business center. Post-9/11 airport-security procedures have added a lot of time and hassle to trips for Latin American business people using Miami as a hub. And burdensome U.S. financial regulations make relatively laissez-faire Panama attractive.
There is also the matter of how U.S. officialdom too often treats foreign visitors, and that’s the real subject of this blog post. The WSJ article opens with an infuriating anecdote about the reception a Brazilian woman received at the Miami airport:
Anna Paula Gama, an accounts executive for MTV Brasil, got a cold reception when she arrived in Miami last year for a vacation.
Despite having visited the U.S. four previous times, she was pulled aside by immigration agents and grilled about her finances. She emerged teary-eyed, vowing to never visit Miami again. “They opened all my bags, opened my wallet, dropping money all over the floor, then they left me to pick it up myself,” she recalls.
This kind of treatment is inexcusable. This lady isn’t likely to be a terrorist, and even if she were, treating her disrespectfully would hardly increase our odds of identifying or apprehending her. But treating her badly probably does make it more likely that she will avoid visiting or doing business here, that she will vote for anti-American politicians in her own country, and that she will be less sympathetic to U.S. policies and interests when her elected officials look for public support for pro-U.S. policies.
I don’t care what the French political elite think about us, but I think that the perceptions and opinions about the U.S.A. of ordinary people around the world matter. A large part of what the Bush administration is trying to do, in its current campaign to promote democracy in formerly dangerous dictatorships, requires the residents of those places to trust in our good faith. We also need the support of voters in the democratic countries we are allied with. We gain nothing by abusing any of these people in our airports. And while I have no doubt that not all U.S. immigration officials abuse foreign visitors, I have heard and read enough of these stories to believe that mistreatment of visitors is frequent and that our bureaucracy does little to discourage it. This is an area in which the Bush administration, for all of its great successes overseas, has performed poorly. Never mind the Congressional gimmick of reorganizing the INS, surely we are long past due for a housecleaning of our immigration bureaucracy, starting at the top. Nothing reinforces accountability better than high-level firings, as Bush’s recent actions at the CIA demonstrate. What about the INS? I get the impression that it’s a low priority. I think that’s unfortunate.
The world is becoming increasingly competitive. Just as U.S. companies increasingly face foreign competition for business, so U.S. cities compete with foreign cities as business venues. And so the U.S. as a country competes with other countries for the world’s most productive people, who enrich our country greatly but don’t have to come here. We should treat them decently when they visit.