Thursday, May 17, 2012

Despite Media Focus - It's Easier to Get Out of China Than Into US

News stories about Chinese dissident attorney Chen Guangcheng focus on his escape to the US Embassy and the quick arrangements to allow him into the US.  But for most Chinese, getting out of China is the easy part.  Getting into the US is much more difficult. 

The Statue of Liberty story is embedded in Americans' brains  - the one that says people struggle to escape oppressive regimes to be welcomed with open arms by the US.  The story gets reinforced by news articles like Chen's.  For me this story got turned upside down in 1989 when I was teaching in Hong Kong for a year.  I found out that  getting out of China or Hong Kong was the easy part.  But visas to the US were extremely difficult to get. 

If you are an internationally known dissident, like Chen or Feng Lizhii, who recently died I just learned, it's different.  In these cases a US visa is readily available, while the dissident is having trouble with their own countries.

Back in the early 90's, I was told on several occasions by US consulate and embassy officials that people applying for visas must prove that they have sufficient ties in China  to ensure that they will return when their visa expires.  For a male, under 40, I was told, this was impossible to prove.  Essentially, they were saying that males under 40 could not get visas to the US.  This wasn't completely true, but unless the applicant had very good connections, he wasn't going to get a visa. 

In one case, UAA had accepted an exceptionally good Chinese student, someone I'd met  in Beijing.  We got him housing, we had tuition covered, an assistantship for him - his expenses were covered.  We sent letters of support to the Embassy.  He was turned down and missed the fall semester.  I was able to visit the Embassy on a trip to Beijing and talk to the head of the Visa section and assured him this was all good.  Only then was he able to get his visa and start in the winter semester. (And after getting an MPA from us and a PhD in North Carolina, he returned to Asia to teach.)

After 9/11, student visas got harder for everyone.  Many potentially great international students have gone to Britain and other countries because the obstacles to getting into the US are so daunting.  From a USAToday story last year
Cost, distance and lingering fears about visa denials in the post-9/11 era have helped make the USA less attractive to foreign students, threatening a lucrative market that is a source of brain power and diversity for U.S. colleges. [emphasis added]

The American Embassy, in the early 1990's was in the heart of a bustling Beijing neighborhood.  An active street market was right across the street, taking advantage of relatively wealthy foreigners going to the embassy.  It was pretty cheeky since they sold lots of illegal knock-off products that the US was continually trying to curtail.   A decade later, the neighborhood around the embassy was totally blocked off.  Windows on nearby buildings had been boarded over.  The line  to get into the embassy started about 1/4 mile from the entrance.  Once cleared (Americans didn't have to wait in line here) you walked through a fenced off no-man's land.  It reminded me of going into East Berlin in the height of the Cold War.  But this was to get to the US Embassy.  After waiting in line for long periods, walking the quarter mile dead zone, Chinese then had to stand around more and wait until they were called.  It didn't matter if you were elderly.   It was positively degrading for Chinese.  Everyone was treated like a potential terrorist.  It makes going through US airport security seem like a Disney ride.  A great way to say "Welcome to the US."

It's true there were periods when masses of immigrants came to the US - but never without a backlash.   But it's also true that there were many times when people escaping starvation or oppressive, even genocidal regimes, were turned back by the US.  Chinese were banned from immigration from 1882 until 1943.  Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany  faced a State Department that resisted giving out visas.  Some ships kept going until they found a port in Cuba or South America where the passengers could land.  Sometimes they were forced to return to Germany and for many that meant annihilation in concentration camps. 

I would imagine  that this Statue of Liberty story is well embedded in the minds of the rabidly anti-immigration folks have no idea how difficult it is to get into the US. They imagine hordes of immigrants, legal and illegal, being welcomed with open arms.  It just ain't so.  (Yes, there are many people crossing the borders illegally, but in part because of the legal barriers and in part because of the demand for cheaper and more compliant labor.  And recent studies show that net flow of Mexicans to the US is now zero. Some anti-immigration activist may claim their efforts led to this and they could be right.  It's not clear yet.)

The Point?

This post is just a reminder that there are so many things we believe that aren't exactly true.   So much uninspected 'truth'  is embedded in our brains that it's hard to spot.  Just ask yourself, once a day, about something you read or realize that you believe,
  • "How do I know this?"  
  • "Is this something I have the facts to prove or is it something I've just always, uncritically accepted as true?"
This isn't easy to do.  I'd strongly recommend James Loeven's  Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong as a starting point.  I avoided the book for years thinking the title was too sensational.  It isn't.  It's just a very good and very readable book.  And it will wake up liberals and conservatives alike. (And people who don't fit those labels too.)

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