The Olympics and Why Bad Experiences at U.S. Borders are More “Harrowing” Than You Think

October 08, 2009

By Heather Stewart

In his pitch to the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen last week, President Obama spoke about what he sees as the enduring value of the Olympic competition: “It brings us together, if only for a few weeks, face to face.  It helps us understand one another just a little bit better. It reminds us that no matter how or where we differ, we all seek our own measure of happiness, and fulfillment, and pride in what we do. That's a very powerful starting point for progress.”

Unfortunately, the Chicago bid raised questions about whether visitors might find it too difficult to enter the United States for the Olympic Games. According to a recent report by the New York Times’ Michelle Higgins, “Syed Shahid Ali, an [International Olympic Committee] member from Pakistan, in the question-and-answer session following Chicago’s official presentation, pointed out that entering the United States can be ‘a rather harrowing experience.’” This comment speaks to the reality that the level of indignities facing some visitors at our borders continues to negatively impact America’s reputation around the world as a welcoming destination.

News media and blogs in the United States and around the world regularly describe the harrowing experiences of visitors at U.S. airports and in encounters with immigration officials. These experiences have a real cost, and it’s more than just a public relations problem. As people around the world make their choices about where to travel, they are too often choosing not to come here, and that has serious implications well beyond the Olympics - for tourism, business, research, and education in our country.  Unfortunately, the question of how we ensure that we meet our country’s legitimate security needs while presenting a welcoming face to the world isn’t even on the radar in the current debate about comprehensive immigration reform.

President Obama made clear in his speech at Cairo University in Egypt earlier this year that he is committed to expanding educational exchange programs between the United States and other countries. In order for the promise of that commitment to become a reality, this situation must change.


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