11 million enter area on US state department visa waivers, but key visitors left out
By Zachary S. Fagenson
More than 11 million travelers have entered South Florida since 2001 via a state department program designed to help facilitate business and tourism.
But that group might not include ideal business visitors looking to invest in South Florida, and the program doesn't waive citizens from many key countries that do business with South Florida.
The US Department of State's visa waiver program allows citizens of 36 countries, mostly from Europe, to travel freely to the US for no more than 90 days for tourism or business.
Among the nations are Spain, Germany, South Korea and the United Kingdom. Yet not one Central or South American country is on the list.
"I was around when we made significant visa changes after 9/11," Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice L. Jacobs told a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce meeting in late April, and those "changes… were enshrined in law.
But "we heard from the business community the need to give priority to business travel [and] what we did was to instruct our posts to come up with some kind of business facilitation program," she added.
The state department also created business visa centers that provide visa information to US companies looking to invite prospective business clients and partners here.
About 11.5 million travelers entered South Florida on the program between 2001 and May 12, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The figures include travelers entering through Miami International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Palm Beach International Airport.
And 2010, which to date has seen 824,281 visa waiver travelers enter South Florida, appears on track to be the program's biggest year in the region.
Usage of the program here peaked in 2004 when 1,356,164 came on a visa waiver. It later dipped to 1,055,987 in 2006.
But last year, 1,322,432 international travelers passed through South Florida airports on visa waivers.
"It's encouraging to see more people are coming to Florida from the visa waiver countries," said Manny Mencia, senior vice president of Enterprise Florida's international trade and business development division. But "that doesn't solve the problem for investors."
Investors, he added, aren't eligible for the visa waiver and many wealthy foreigners endure long waits and uncertainty in the visa approval process.
"The program I deal with for the most part, the EB-5 program, is plagued with delays in processing," said immigration attorney Roger Bernstein, a partner at law firm Bernstein Osberg-Braun & de Moraes, in a previous interview. Here "you're talking about extremely wealthy investors looking to get immigrant status in the US and they're left with processing times of six months or more."
To qualify for the EB-5, foreigners must show proof of an investment of $1 million or more creating 10 jobs or an investment of $500,000 or more in a high unemployment area.
It can take "almost a year to process these cases before an entrepreneur investing a half million dollars can get their residency," Mr. Bernstein added.
And though Mr. Mencia pointed to absence of Latin American nations as a concern, the United Kingdom, France and Spain rank second, third and fourth respectively in the top 15 countries with their global companies having offices in Miami-Dade, according to the Beacon Council's website.
Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico comprise the bottom third of that list.
"The problem is a lot of our key markets are not in the visa waiver program and even [for] those that are visa waiver countries, investors require an investor visa," Mr. Mencia said. "It's nice they can visit, but when they want to invest they fall into the situation of a relatively slow process."