U.S. Visa Policy Costs Florida Billions, Watchdog Says

INVESTMENTS, TOURISM, UNIVERSITIES AFFECTED

By MICHAEL SASSO

The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - Beefing up airport security and scrutinizing foreign visitors were the right moves after the Sept. 11 attacks, but now all the added security might be hurting Florida's economy, a prominent Tallahassee watchdog group says.

Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan group that studies public policy, estimates the state has lost out on as much as $50 billion in business because foreign businesspeople and tourists are turned off by the country's strict visa and immigration requirements. The group is urging the federal government to make a variety of changes, from speeding up the visa process for foreign visitors to simply treating them better at the airport.

On Thursday, Florida TaxWatch issued a report on how visa and immigration restrictions imposed in the past few years have impacted the Sunshine State. Two Florida TaxWatch senior researchers compiled the report with assistance from Antonio Villamil, a former undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce, and others. Although the report mentions the current debate on immigration, much of it focuses on the trouble that legal visitors have doing business here.

Among the problem areas are:

?Foreign student enrollment. The number of foreign students attending public and private colleges in Florida rose steadily in the late 1990s. But it has been relatively flat since 2001, averaging between 25,000 and 27,000 students per year, according to Florida TaxWatch statistics, which came from government sources.

The report suggests that difficulty obtaining student visas since Sept. 11, 2001, is behind the stagnant growth. Had the attacks never happened, foreign enrollment in Florida colleges and universities would have hit about 40,000 students by 2006-2007, it estimates. That hurts colleges because foreign students don't qualify for Florida resident tuition rates, and often pay the highest tuition, the report says.

?Foreign direct investment. Last year, Florida had more than 1,900 companies that were majority-owned by foreigners, with operations here worth at least $24 billion. Without current restrictions on travel and time-consuming regulations, such as new financial reporting requirements, foreign direct investment might have grown to around $58 billion, the group estimates.

?Tourism. Last year, just more than 6 million foreign tourists visited Florida, down from about 8 million in 2000. The report concedes that some tourists may have been scared off because of terrorism concerns and hurricanes. But many appear to have been turned off by difficulty obtaining visas or security hassles at the airport, the report says. If the Sept. 11 attacks and their consequences had never happened, the number of foreign tourists may have nearly reached 10 million, Florida TaxWatch estimates.

Some Bay area businesspeople and educators have first-hand experience with the problems.

Hongling Han-Ralston, a Tampa lawyer who often represents Chinese businesspeople, was involved in trying to bring 13 Chinese pharmaceutical executives to the Bay area for a trade mission last winter. But only six were able to get visas, so they canceled the trip, she said.

Joe McCann, outgoing dean of the University of Tampa business school, said foreign enrollment in his college plummeted after the Sept. 11 attacks, but has since rebounded. However, students from the Middle East and China are still struggling to get visas here, and many are turning to colleges in Europe and Australia, he said.

"Why we [colleges] love them so much is they are full-pay; they bring cash," McCann said.

Florida TaxWatch is advocating for changes to several federal policies to loosen restrictions on travel. One is speeding up the processing of visa applications. Another is creating an International Registered Travel Program, in which frequent international travelers can register and get a smoother travel process.

Reporter Michael Sasso can be reached at msasso@tampatrib.com or (813) 259-7865 .

Copyright © 2007, The Tampa Tribune and may not be republished without permission. E-mail library@tampatrib.com



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