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Boost Our Economy by Welcoming Tourists -- and Immigrants

Unnecessary bureaucratic red tape and visa restrictions are significant barriers that prevent the United States from reaching its potential in the global travel market.
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President Obama's initiative to attract more tourists to the United States is a smart and practical policy that will create more jobs for Americans. We can only hope that congressional leaders will soon realize that similarly wise policy decisions regarding our immigration system also would strengthen our economy.

The plan the president announced as he stood at Walt Disney World in January will allow the U.S. to streamline the tourist visa process for countries such as China and Brazil with growing middle classes that can afford to visit America, and it expands the Visa Waiver Program. These changes and others will make it easier for international frequent travelers to come to the U.S.

The U.S. cannot afford to get tourism wrong. Since 9/11, the U.S. market share in global tourism has plummeted from 17 percent to 11 percent, largely because of increased visa restrictions. According to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), these visa hurdles cost our economy $606 billion and 467,000 jobs between 2000 and 2010. Rolling out the welcome mat for these travelers and the hundreds of thousands of jobs their visits will create and sustain is a no-brainer.

In fact, we would argue that America's recent bid for the 2016 summer Olympic Games was torpedoed by our nation's burdensome visa restrictions.

Unnecessary bureaucratic red tape and visa restrictions are significant barriers that prevent the United States from reaching its potential in the global travel market. By reforming our tourist visa system and recapturing America's historic share of international travel, the U.S. could create up to 1.3 million new U.S. jobs by 2020 and produce $859 billion in cumulative additional economic output.

All this comes without sacrificing security -- no matter the naysayers' claims. With the help of technology, we can institute important safeguards to our visa process while ensuring that this process remains effective and competitive.

For example, in the Visa Pilot program that focuses on China and Brazil, the departments of State and Homeland Security are teaming up to ease the visa screening process for travelers who already have undergone careful screening for an earlier visa application. That will save such travelers time and money, which encourages repeat visits -- and it frees up resources to screen first-time applicants with the necessary scrutiny.

The president's announcement also represents an important step away from short-sighted policies that discourage foreign visitors and investment.

Last year, the Florida state legislature considered harsh immigration enforcement bills inspired by Arizona's controversial immigration law that would have crippled Florida's leading economic sectors: tourism, agriculture and foreign investment. Immigrant workers contribute an average of $4.5 billion in Florida state tax revenues each year, tourists spend $7 billion a year, and foreign investment tops $34 billion.

Fortunately, under heavy pressure from Florida business leaders, the legislature rejected the economically disastrous legislation. Leaders rightly recognized that Florida is a shining example of immigrant success and entrepreneurial spirit -- and international visitors and investment are what keep it strong. Disrupt one part of the equation and all Floridians would have suffered.

We are glad the administration has recognized the need for a smarter and more efficient tourism industry. The next step lies with Congress, whose members must come together to fashion a national immigration strategy that serves Americans and our families.

Like the tourist visa plan just announced, a national solution to our dysfunctional immigration system can make security a priority and make room for a welcome mat in a way that will boost our economy.

Ali Noorani is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum.