This summer, as hundreds of thousands of young Americans take advantage of their passports being all-access passes to the world, it's easy to forget that returning the favor hasn't been so easy for our overseas peers.
In the nearly three years since Sept. 11 changed the way the United States thinks about foreigners on its soil, those seeking to enter the country to study, visit, or work have faced more barriers than ever in recent memory. Even as routine settles on the new Department of Homeland Security, and initially broad security concerns find their focus, the number of foreign students, tourists, and young seasonal workers granted entry continues to decline.
Why care about young people coming here from abroad? For one thing, there are reverberations of a most practical nature. The Globe reported recently that the New England tourism industry is facing a shortage of temporary workers for the high season, mainly young people who come from abroad and wash dishes or wait tables in exchange for a taste of the American experience.
A filled quota on the H-2b visa for seasonal workers, the rise of the rejection rate for the similar J1 visa to nearly 8 percent from a pre-9/11 rate of 5 percent, and a reported decline in applications from feeder countries all contribute.
In Ireland, for example, a program bringing young people to work temporarily in the United States this summer received less than half the number of applications it did last year, and program officials attribute the drop to US-constructed impediments.
Meanwhile, few expect the 27 countries whose citizens currently do not need tourist visas to enter this country to meet the Oct. 26 deadline for compliance with Homeland Security technology regulations of biometric passports. The State Department recently estimated that an additional 5 million travelers from these countries would have to go through the same visa procedures -- including a $100 fee and an embassy interview -- that those in other countries currently undergo. Given that the refusal rate for tourist visas has hovered around 30-35 percent since 2001, this is not good news for the America-bound.
While it's difficult to know the precise effect all this will have on the foreign student traveler, people our age are less likely to have the money and mobility to go through the visa hassle. Moreover, among those from non-waiver countries -- basically, everyone outside the West, Japan, and Singapore -- the young are less likely to hold a tourist visa, valid for up to a decade, from an era before restrictions were increased.
New obstacles to getting foreign students in US classrooms made headlines all year, after studies like that of the Institute of International Education found international student enrollment declined in 46 percent of responding universities for the 2003-04 academic year. After 90 percent of graduate schools reported to the Council of Graduate Schools that their applications from abroad had also suffered, university presidents started crying foul.
''If the visa process remains complicated and filled with delays, we risk . . . compromising our country's position at the forefront of technological innovation," wrote Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard's president, in an April letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. ''If the next generation of foreign leaders are educated elsewhere, we also will have lost the incalculable benefits derived from their extended exposure to our country and its democratic values."
All of this rhetoric is important in reversing the tide of potential US isolationism. Yet focusing on what outsiders can learn about American values and culture ignores the fact that Americans could learn a thing or two about the outside world. Given our relative lack of curiosity about that world, it may take foreign citizens coming here for the reciprocal education to actually get going.
It's been two years since a National Geographic survey revealed that, among other memorable blunders, six out of seven Americans age 18-24 couldn't find Iraq on a map, even as US invasion of the country loomed.
Even if the barriers ease -- Powell and Ridge did ask Congress for a postponement to allow visa waiver countries to implement the new biometric requirements, and in April Ridge promised a review of the visa process's effects on education, business, and science -- this period may well have more lasting and disturbing effects. The next generation of travelers, students, and workers simply may stop trying to come here at all, unwilling to deal with the hassle and cost.
We often speak of the world as a classroom, with an open door that simply needs to be stepped through. For those without the will or the capacity to leave the United States, and they are many, getting to know our peers across borders will be impossible as long as we make it tough for them to get here.
Irin Carmon is a student at Harvard University and a researcher-writer for ''Let's Go Travel Guides." Taking Off, her column on student travel, appears every month. She can be reached through www.irincarmon.com.