Let the Businessmen Out; Jakarta's Dismal Record in Papua

May 23, 2011

The Wall Street Journal Online

American immigration debates usually focus on efforts to let skilled, hardworking foreigners into the country. So it's a change of pace to encounter an important "immigration reform" that would make it easier for American businessmen to get out, potentially boosting exports to boot.
At issue is the APEC Business Travel Card, a creation of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group of which the U.S. is a member. The card, which governments can issue to their own citizens, allows frequent business travelers some useful benefits: shorter immigration lines at airports, visa-free access to some countries, and expedited review of visa applications in other cases.

Bizarrely, the U.S. doesn't issue the card to its own citizens. As a result, American businessmen visiting Asia to market their goods, arrange deals or inspect factories can face days or weeks of delays applying for visas to visit countries such as China or Vietnam. Once they land at foreign airports such as Tokyo Narita or Hong Kong International, they can stand in immigration lines for up to an hour as their competitors zip through the shorter APEC line and on to meetings. For business travelers frequently on the road, that time adds up quickly.

America already gives foreign cardholders speedier passage through passport checks at U.S. ports of entry. Issuing the card would require no additional concessions to foreign governments in terms of eased visa standards to enter the U.S. or the like, and could be zero cost depending on the fee businessmen pay for the card.

The main hold-up is Congress's failure to pass legislation authorizing the Department of Homeland Security to issue the cards. This appears to be a matter of political inertia more than outright opposition, despite heroic lobbying by the American business community in Asia and the likes of America's ambassador to Singapore, David Adelman, all of whom see how American companies are losing out in time and convenience. Some members of Congress who understand the importance of the issue, including Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Rick Larsen, both Democrats of Washington State, are pressing their colleagues to pass the necessary law sometime this year.

With the U.S. set to host APEC's annual meeting of heads of state in Hawaii later this year—and with President Obama's export initiative relying in large part on the ability of American businessmen to market their products abroad—this one ought to be a no-brainer. For once, Congress can pass a zero-controversy immigration bill.