Have Cash, Will Travel? For Mexicans, Visa Slows Quest
Travelers looking north to spend are being told to 'take a number'
MEXICO CITY — You're Mexican, and you want to take a vacation to the United States?
It doesn't matter that the Sunday newspapers are full of ads for getaways to Disney World, the Big Apple, and L.A. And never mind that you've saved a hunk of dollars that you want to squander on Mickey, Lady Liberty, or a shopping spree at Bloomies. You still need a visa, and getting one can be a daunting task.
Just ask any of the thousands of Mexicans who line up every day outside the US Embassy here - some even spending the night in Mexico City's sultry summer weather just to increase their chances of getting inside the doors the next morning. Merchants selling small folding stools, umbrellas, and slickers join vendors hawking drinks and snacks to the weary.
"Coyotes" (scalpers) even sell prime head-of-the-line slots for upwards of $100. And still, many people report having to come back a second or third day.
"This is terrible. We've been here since 11 o'clock last night and we're still not sure we're making any progress," says Mara Estela Ramrez Lpez, a Mexico City doctor, in a late-morning line. "For a country like the US that is supposed to be so efficient and organized, this is discouraging."
Dr. Ramrez is accompanying her teenage son Rafal, who like more than 2,000 other Mexicans on the same morning, is applying for a tourist visa. Rafal wants to visit friends in Sacramento, Calif., while other applicants are headed for US amusement parks, summer camps, conventions, or family reunions.
It is a rite of holiday seasons: At Christmas, Easter, but above all during the summer months, long lines of mostly middle-class Mexicans on the visa hunt form around the US Embassy on Paseo de la Reforma, overwhelming the consular service's maximum daily capacity of 1,500 applicants.
But the crowds and the confusion are a little worse this summer - in part because travel to the US is affordable for a growing number of Mexicans. After two summers of a steep economic downturn that prohibited foreign travel for many, a surprisingly stable peso - and inflation that is still galloping, by US standards - mean crossing the border for vacation makes sense once again.
"Strange as it seems, it can actually be cheaper to take your vacation in the US," says Marco Antonio Daz Quintana, a Mexico City journalist who bought a package tour to take his young son on a week-long Disney World pilgrimage. "No way could I afford to spend the same amount of time in Cancn."
Despite appearances to the contrary, US Embassy officials say they want nothing more than to help Mexicans spend their fun money in the US. "I want to promote tourism, and I want to make it easy for people to get their visas and travel to the US," says Mexico City Consul General Victor Abeyta.
Improvements in the works
Part of the Mexico City bottleneck would vanish if people planning to head north during the seasonal travel "spikes" would only apply for their visa during slow months, says Mr. Abeyta. But he also admits there is substantial room for organizational improvement.
Abeyta is planning a call-in appointment system that should move the consulate closer to its goal of making the visa process "a one-day service." Also in the works is an "improved" program to allow selected travel agencies to take the visa walk for their clients. The embassy also has a web site (www.usembassy.org.mx) providing all the information needed to get a visa application right the first time and will soon install monitors outside the consulate doors with time-saving information.
And despite the rumors, flowing up and down the lines of visa applicants like electricity, that an increasingly "anti-Mexican" US only approves about 2 of every 10 Mexican visa applications, Abeyta says the approval rate is actually about 70 percent. That's more than half a million visas - not yet approaching the approximately 8 million Americans who flock to Mexico's cities, beaches, and jungles on as little as a birth certificate every year, but not exactly anti-Mexican either.