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Chasing Growth: The Role of National Economies in U.S. Visa Refusal Rates

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Chasing Growth: The Role of National Economies in U.S. Visa Refusal Rates

visa applicant

A consular officer interviews a visa applicant in Chennai, India. (Photo: U.S. Consulate General, Chennai)

Anyone who has applied for a tourist visa to vacation abroad is aware that the task can be burdensome, bureaucratic, and byzantine. What’s more, predicting whether a governmental authority will issue or refuse a particular application can be exceedingly difficult even for immigration law professionals. When looking at aggregate data, however, certain trends in visa adjudication become apparent. This article discusses the correlation between a country’s real gross domestic product (GDP) growth and its citizens’ refusal rate for temporary visitor visas to the United States, and how these visa decisions reflect broader U.S. migration management goals.

Nationals in countries with minimal growth and high unemployment, in particular, may be driven to seek economic opportunity elsewhere. Some may resort to extraordinary measures to support themselves and their families, including seeking temporary visas when confronted with limited or nonexistent channels for long-term or permanent employment visas. Many experts contend that such economic motivations drive a large number of the visa overstayers living in countries with highly developed economies, such as the United States. A better understanding of the extent to which such reasoning is considered in existing visa policy can help inform the debate on immigration reform.

An analysis of visa refusal rates by country shows that there is a statistically significant negative correlation between an economy’s rate of growth, as measured by its compound annual real GDP growth rate, and changes in the rate at which its citizens are refused short-term nonimmigrant visas for tourism or business—the visas most frequently issued. In other words, as countries’ economies grow, their citizens are less likely to be refused a temporary visa. Although economic growth is not a tool consular officer consider in individual visa adjudications, it could become an important metric for policymakers to consider as they refine visa policies.

Visitor Visas to the United States

Temporary visitors to the United States generally require a visa to be admitted at a port of entry, unless they qualify for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The United States issues visas according to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) as codified in Title 8 of the United States Code. The law defines two general types of visas: immigrant and nonimmigrant. Immigrant visas are those that permit legal permanent residence (also known as getting a green card). Nonimmigrant visas comprise temporary visas for reasons of work, study, business, or tourism.

The majority of the world’s population visiting the United States receives a nonimmigrant visa, including those from the most populous countries—China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. Although the United States has dozens of visa types, the most frequently issued and used are those in the B category: nonimmigrant visas for temporary business visits (visa category B-1); tourism, pleasure, or visiting friends and family (B-2); or a combination of both purposes (B-1/B-2). B visas vary in length of validity from three months to ten years, depending on bilateral reciprocity between the United States and the applicant’s country of origin. On average, foreigners admitted into the United States on a B visa may stay no longer than 180 days.

The Visa Interview Process and Determination of the Risk of Visa Overstay

After paying requisite fees, completing the online visa application, and providing required biometric information and documentation, foreigners generally interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Section 212(a) of the INA outlines the security-related reasons an applicant may be deemed inadmissible, such as criminality, terrorism, or previous immigration violation (there are also nonsecurity reasons). Although 212(a) refusals are the most significant in terms of national security, they are not the most common reason for which visas are denied. When reviewing applications for most nonimmigrant visa classes, the consular officer must also apply INA Section 214(b), which presumes applicants seeking to enter the United States temporarily for business or pleasure intend to immigrate unless they prove to the officer’s satisfaction that they have strong ties to their current country of residence and do not intend to give these up to remain in the United States.

During the interview, the consular officer is required to assess the intent of the visa applicant by determining the strength of these overseas ties, whether cultural, economic, employment, familial, or political. For example, a young, unemployed single male with no financial assets or children has far fewer demonstrable ties to his country of residence than a middle-aged, married businessman who has financial assets and supports his family in a home he owns. As a result, the unemployed man may have more difficulty convincing a consular officer that he intends to leave the United States before the expiration of his visa than the businessman. The economic opportunities open to an individual in the country of residence play a similarly important role in this analysis. That is to say, when a country’s economy is growing strongly, it is easier for an applicant to demonstrate convincingly that opportunities at home are such that he or she is likely to return. Conversely, if the economy is in severe recession or crisis, demonstrating convincing economic ties can be far more difficult.

Some nongovernmental organizations have estimated that perhaps as much as half of all unauthorized immigrants in the United States arrived legally and then overstayed a visa. While the U.S. government has not published an overstay estimate for the overall unauthorized population since 1997, a report issued in January 2016 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) examined a more limited subset of nonimmigrants admitted over a period of time and calculated an overstay rate of 1.17 percent. For VWP countries, DHS estimated the rate was 0.65 percent of entries, and 1.60 percent for non-VWP countries. Djibouti, Bhutan, Eritrea, Laos, and Burkina Faso represented the countries whose nationals had the highest overstay rates during the period reviewed in 2014 and 2015. Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom represented the lowest rates.

Visa-Free Travel

Certain temporary visitors do not need a visa to arrive at a U.S. port of entry; this includes individuals who visit for business or pleasure, stay for 90 days or fewer, and are citizens of VWP-participating countries or Canada (which has a separate agreement). The 38 countries that participate in the VWP (the vast majority European) are all high-income economies as defined by the World Bank, meaning each has a gross national income annually of $12,735 or more per capita. Citizens of these countries must only complete an online form, known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), once every two years. These visitors remain subject to the same admissions screening at ports of entry as other non-nationals who arrive with a visa. In fiscal year (FY) 2013, VWP admissions accounted for about 19.6 million visits to the United States, or approximately 60 percent of temporary entries by air. What’s more, all VWP countries are required to enter into information-sharing agreements with the United States and to flag for U.S. authorities any citizen or national travelling to the United States who represents a security or criminal threat.

Measuring Economic Growth

While assessing the immigration intent of a visa applicant is not easy, measuring the level of economic opportunity in a particular country can be equally challenging. One of the most widely used, broad metrics of economic opportunity is the growth in national GDP, a measure of the value of all goods and services a resident population produces. However, to account for inflation—the sustained increase in the price of goods and services over a period of time—analysts use real GDP to more accurately compare growth or decline over many years. To calculate real GDP, nominal GDP is scaled using a price-level index known as the GDP deflator.

Real GDP growth and unemployment tend to be inversely related. In other words, as an economy grows, the percentage of its total labor force that is unemployed will drop, and vice versa. This phenomenon helps explain why individuals in areas with a weakening economy and, relatedly, fewer employment opportunities may choose to migrate—and why real GDP growth could be a useful tool for consular officers seeking to determine an individual’s intentions in visiting the United States. (This is particularly the case because countries use different methods to calculate unemployment, making comparisons by unemployment rate less accurate. GDP is more easily compared between countries.) 214(b) visa refusals often function to prevent foreign citizens from using B visas to arrive in the United States and work without authorization and in violation of the visa. Inasmuch as 214(b) refusals prevent overseas labor from competing with American workers for available jobs, they serve as a proxy measure for the perceived likelihood of economic migration to the United States.

Correlation Between Economic Growth and B Visa Refusals

If economic opportunities truly are a determinant in B visa refusal rates, one would expect a correlation between the growth of national economies, measured in terms of real GDP, and the rate of change in B visa refusals. This analysis compares compound annual growth rate of real GDP—determined using data from the World Bank as provided by United Nations Member States—with the average annual change in the adjusted B visa refusal rate for nationals of the same countries. Because of a lack of GDP data, the countries of Burma (also known as Myanmar), Jamaica, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria, were not considered in this analysis. For the remaining 152 countries, a statistically significant correlation exists between these two variables (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Correlation between Real GDP and B Visa Refusal Rate, 2006-13

Source: Visa statistics from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Calculation of the Adjusted Visa Refusal Rate for Tourist and Business Travelers Under the Guidelines of the Visa Waiver Program,” available online; GDP from the World Bank, “World Development Indicators,” available online.

Since 2006, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs has published the adjusted refusal rate of B visas by nationality for each fiscal year. The adjusted refusal rate accounts for the fact that one applicant can have multiple visa adjudications in a year, including only the individual’s final adjudication outcome for the year. For example, if an applicant who was refused a visa in April reapplies and is issued one in July, the applicant would count as one issuance in the adjusted refusal rate. Similarly, if an applicant who was refused in April reapplies and is refused again in July, the applicant counts as one refusal.

This analysis also uses the country-level real GDP values published annually by the World Bank. These values were obtained in 2005 U.S. dollars, as the wages of any immigrant would incur an exchange rate risk if remitted to country of origin. The compound annual growth rate was determined for the real GDP of each country between 2006 and 2013. A least squares analysis regression line of the compound annual real GDP growth rates and average annual change in B visa refusal rates shows a statistically significant negative correlation for all countries. In other words, as a country’s economy experiences sustained growth, the refusal rate for B visas for its citizens tends to decrease.

Although correlation does not yield causation, it is important to consider different potentially causative factors. As a national economy grows, there is often an increase in the demand for labor. As employer demand for labor increases, the opportunities for citizens expand. Therefore, because real GDP growth indicates a growing demand for both skilled and unskilled labor, it is understandable that this indicator of expanded opportunity would correlate with a decreasing rate of B visa refusal rates. People with economic opportunities and paid employment in their home countries are less likely to risk everything on a new life in a foreign country. Those same people are more likely to develop strong economic ties to their country of origin.

Source: Visa statistics from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Calculation of the Adjusted Visa Refusal Rate for Tourist and Business Travelers Under the Guidelines of the Visa Waiver Program,” available online; GDP from the World Bank, “World Development Indicators,” available online.

Countries with the most significant declines in B visa refusal rates between 2006 and 2013 experienced some of the strongest economic growth. In Asia, both Vietnam and Indonesia have witnessed precipitous declines in B visa refusal rates, while recording annual real GDP growth rates of 5 percent or higher. In other regions, significant declines in B visa refusal rates for nationals of Brazil, Malawi, and Poland also accompanied recent strong real GDP growth. These countries likely show such strong correlations because their economies were more insulated from the effects of the severe recession that gripped the U.S. economy in 2008 and 2009.

However, the adjudication of a nonimmigrant visa is not simply a function of the amount of economic growth in the applicant’s country. Security concerns and other factors outweigh economic considerations for many nations in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have all experienced sizable economic growth with minimal or inconsistent change in the B visa refusal rate.

Interestingly, when looking only at VWP countries, the B visa refusal rates have been steadily increasing over time. Because citizens of VWP countries do not routinely need to apply for a B visa to temporarily visit the United States, the pool of VWP country applicants is relatively small and does not reflect the characteristics of a country’s overall population. Only those persons who no longer qualify under ESTA would need to apply for a B visa. Because security and criminality are the most frequent causes of ESTA disqualification, these applicants are more likely than most citizens of VWP countries to be denied a visa due to criminal convictions and other extenuating circumstances.

Real GDP, Visa Refusal Rates, and the Visa Waiver Program

The Visa Waiver Program has at times come under significant scrutiny in Congress and elsewhere as a possible risk to national security, as has the prospect of expansion to other countries. Both the U.S. government and the private sector support VWP facilitation of legitimate travel, which results in growth of the U.S. travel and tourism industries. However, disagreement remains over whether the VWP increases or decreases national security.

Critics have cited the fact that any foreign national exempt from the visa approval process cannot be screened in advance against DHS and FBI biometric databases. Others point to VWP use by terrorists such as Richard Reid, the London shoe bomber, whose previous criminal convictions might have led to higher scrutiny in a full visa adjudication. In 2015 DHS introduced a requirement that all VWP arrivals use biometric passports and expanded the presence of air marshals on inbound international flights.

Beyond national security issues, lawmakers have sought to refine the criteria by which countries are considered—or rejected—for visa-free travel, focusing particularly on the adjusted refusal rate of B visas as a deciding factor for entry into the VWP. In addition to refusal rates, a VWP country must accept the repatriation of its citizens; share information regarding lost and stolen passports, terrorism, and serious crime; and issue electronic, machine-readable passports with biometric identifiers.

As part of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013—the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the U.S. Senate, but not the House of Representatives—language was included to reform nonimmigrant visas via the Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act of 2013. The legislation, which was reintroduced in the House in 2015, would authorize DHS to expand visa-free travel to nationals from more countries. Although such attempts have previously died in Congress, the demand for reform persists.

While President Obama promised in 2010 that Poland would be added to the list, the country remains, despite significant lobbying, the only member of Europe’s passport-free travel Schengen area not able to participate in the VWP. The Senate initially inserted language in the FY 2016 DHS appropriations bill that would add Poland to the VWP, but the final legislation did not include the language. An additional example of international pressure to expand the VWP came with the 2014 announcement that Bulgaria might not support the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed free trade area between the European Union and the United States, unless the United States lifts visa requirements for Bulgaria.

Implications for Policymakers

What is lost in policy discussions about VWP expansion is an acknowledgment of the significant role economic growth plays in the overall adjusted B visa refusal rate—even as that rate is used to gauge the eligibility of a country to join the VWP. In an era of big data and econometric modeling that can dynamically adjust the price of an international flight or unsold hotels to last-minute guests, policymakers have the opportunity to consider new and innovative ways of predicting and controlling the flow of economic migrants.

Because U.S. immigration law presumes the intent to remain in the United States, the refusal rate for visitor visas can serve as a proxy measure for assessing whether applicants intend to overstay their temporary visas and remain in the United States, drawn by the prospect of jobs and a better economic future. As discussed above, analysis shows a statistically significant inverse correlation between adjusted refusal rates by country and their real GDP growth. As policymakers consider adjustments to the Visa Waiver Program, such a correlation can help inform their discussions.

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.


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