(Stuart Seeger / flickr)
If you want to travel from Spain to the United States, the process is simple. You register online through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), pay a fee of $14, and either get an instant answer or wait a day or two while the U.S. government checks to make sure that you are not a terrorist or a wanted criminal. Your stay can last up to three months, no questions asked.
If you want to travel from Brazil to the United States, however, you will first need to apply for a visitor visa, pay a fee of $140, and then wait two to six weeks for a consular interview. If that goes well, you then wait a little longer as your visa is processed. And this is good news; a year ago, before the Obama administration made speedier visa processing a priority, the wait time was much longer -- usually three months or more.
The different treatment for travelers from Spain and Brazil is the historical legacy of the 1986 Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which offers visa-free travel for visitors from the United States' wealthier allies. Tourists from these countries, Washington assumed, were likelier than others to go home to their prosperous lives rather than overstay their visas. Today, all but a handful of the 36 countries in the VWP are European. The rest are developed Asia-Pacific countries -- such as Australia, Japan, and, recently, South Korea. Not a single Latin American or African country is part of the VWP.
By limiting the program, the United States is missing out on considerable economic, political, and security benefits. Some of the potentially eligible countries -- Argentina, Brazil, and Taiwan, to name a few -- have fast-growing economies. In 2010, the United States issued some 850,000 visas to citizens of those three countries alone. And the numbers are growing in double-digit percentages. Brazilians received 60 percent more visas in January 2012 than they did during the same month in 2011. Even so, more than 50 percent of overseas