Annie Pforzheimer is a retired career diplomat with the personal rank of Minister Counselor from the Department of State, a Senior Non-Resident Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, an Adjunct Professor at the City University of New York, and a public commentator and consultant on foreign policy issues.
As we enter the new year, the political temperature in the US regarding uncontrolled migration through Mexico threatens to derail other national priorities, leading some to imagine that the former might attempt long-delayed immigration reforms. Meanwhile, travel to the US and tourism by American citizens have rebounded, although US visa wait times remain far too lengthy.
Crossings, attempted crossings, and asylum requests at the US southern border are at never-before-seen levels, as many as 10,000 people on a single day in December 2023. Within the US, efforts by governors of southern border states to bus migrants north has had the desired impact of making more Democratic Party elected officials sound a negative tone on immigration and its impact on city budgets in locations like New York. The migrant foot traffic that has breached the previously impenetrable Darién Gap of Panama — over 80,000 in August 2023 alone — is causing environmental damage. Most who make this land journey are from Ecuador and Venezuela.
In the face of this surge, the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) has called for a regional response that prioritizes the humanitarian needs of the people making the trip and the impacted populations in the transit countries. An IOM news release notes that “beyond the sheer increase in the numbers of people making the trip, the most significant trend has been the shift by Cuban migrants and those coming from African nations who are increasingly choosing air routes to reach Central America, sidestepping the Darien to continue their northbound trip.”
Responding to elevated numbers of asylum-seekers, Republican senators countered a request from the Biden administration to approve emergency funding for war efforts in Israel and Ukraine with proposals to bolster physical border security at the Mexican border, add more border enforcement agents, and make standards stricter for asylum-seekers claiming to be in flight from persecution. These proposals would also re-install a policy of detaining families and would tighten parameters for humanitarian parole. While there was little chance the package of Republican proposals would pass unaltered, even the Biden administration has called the asylum system “broken”. There is more motivation than usual to tackle the long-delayed project of immigration reform; however, this remains one of the most intractable issues of American politics. After a phone call between the US and Mexican presidents in late December last year, the US secretaries of State and Homeland Security were scheduled to visit Mexico, a sign of tension between the two nations and a growing mutual agreement that more border enforcement is needed.
On the other hand, Canada’s commitment to immigration remains strong — over 465,000 new residents arrived in 2023 and the 2024 target is 485,000, with the aim of over 500,000 in the two subsequent years. These are twice as many admissions as in previous years, per the current government policy, and these will continue for the foreseeable future as birth rates decline and the ‘baby boomer’ population bulge ages.
Middle East conflict and other security, environmental, and political cautions make travel advisories more prevalent for US travelers, applying to about 10% of all countries. A worldwide caution was issued by the US government in October for American travelers, noting the “potential for attacks against Americans in spots around the world”. But these concerns are not keeping Americans at home — many who are traveling had deferred their trips already during the pandemic and are willing to run the risk of war-related disruptions. Last year, US passport holders gained visa-on-arrival status to Türkiye, allowing US citizens to visit this major tourist destination without needing a Turkish visa in advance. This helpful adjustment comes amid a net improvement of the US score on the Henley Passport Index* (losing visa-free access to five countries and gaining access to six including Türkiye and Kenya).
Meanwhile, travel to the US is at a level close to pre-pandemic times, even though delays overseas in visa processing remain embarrassingly high. The demand for visa services has outstripped the efforts made to surge resources and fix previous backlogs. The Department of Commerce’s National Travel and Tourism Office noted that from October 2022 to September 2023, the state department issued “record-breaking” numbers of tourist and business travel visas: “nearly 10.5 million globally, surpassing any high-water mark in recent history. U.S. embassies and consulates issued 55 percent more nonimmigrant visas in FY 2023 compared to last fiscal year, and 20 percent more than during the same period in pre-pandemic FY 2019.” Nevertheless, wait times remain over two years in Mexico and one year in India. Beyond visa concerns, the New York City Tourism + Conventions CEO said the US could fall behind in the tourism industry in part due to its “outdated air infrastructure”.
On the other hand, in September, the US added Israel to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), the first new country since 2021. To achieve this status, Israel committed to allowing US citizens free access to Israel, regardless of their dual nationality or ancestry; previously, some Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans had been denied visa-free access to the Middle Eastern country. A few months prior in July 2023, the US tightened visa-free travel into its borders for citizens of VWP countries who had visited Cuba, designated by the US as a “state sponsor of terrorism” since early 2021.
The US announced that there will be over 64,000 new H-2B visas this fiscal year (which began on 1 October 2023) for seasonal and intermittent labor, with 20,000 of these reserved for Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras, in an effort to stem some irregular migration from these countries.
* The Henley Passport Index reflects data compiled on 2 January 2024.