If one were to take a tour around the premises of consulates in Ho Chi Minh City, one would easily notice that the United States Consulate always attracts the largest number of applicants, waiting from dawn in the longest queue of them all, just for an interview.
Applicants line up outside the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City on May 28. Photo: Tuan Anh
Understandably, the recent reports on US visa scam (http://www.thanhniennews.com/index/pages/20130606-catching-up-with-the-vos.aspx) and (http://www.thanhniennews.com/index/pages/20130531-the-big-visa-scam.aspx), in which the former Head of Non-Immigrant Visa Department, Michael T. Sestak, secretly sold each visa for tens of thousand dollars, have sparked public outrage.
But the fact remains that he would not be a successful visa salesman if there weren't many Vietnamese people willing to buy them at any cost. This raises a disturbing question: why are we Vietnamese so eager to get a US non-immigrant visa?
Is the US the most educated country in the world? No, Canada is. Is it the country with highest number of tourists? No, France is. Is it the richest country in the world? No, citizens of Luxembourg, Qatar and Singapore can boast higher salaries.
Personally, I have several relatives living both in the US and Australia. Let's do a simple wage comparison. A relative in the US said the average wage for a waiter in the US is $8 per hour. In Australia? 12 AUD an hour.
Regarding high school education, is the US the best place where your teenage children can do well in math, reading and science? No. Finland, Singapore and Korea would be much better options.
Also, is the US a safe country to live in? If safety means having a gun to protect yourself, probably. US must certainly be the most armed country in the world, having more weapons that the world's most violent hotspots at the moment. Then, just going by the headlines, where do horrific mass shootings happen the most? Would it be safe to describe the US as a country living in fear due to uncontrolled gun ownership? It would, based on obvious evidence.
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In other words, the US is by no means the best place to earn, the most nurturing environment for kids to grow, or the safest neighborhood to take a leisurely walk.
So what is the charm of a US visa? In my opinion, it is the long gone past of economic success that makes Vietnamese still believe in the American Dream. The truth is also that the Vietnamese community in the US is quite strong. America used to be an economic superpower, but the economic downturn from 2008 onwards has seen the unemployment rate in the US soar, and it has reduced the country from a "land of opportunities" to one in deep crisis on many fronts.
So why did we pay such fortunes to such greedy creatures like Sestak so that they would open the gate to a devastated land? What do we want to see there? Unemployed workers trying to find a decent job? Discontented undergraduates with broken dreams aiming guns at and shooting their peers and teachers? To enjoy such an experience, it is better to go to a local world-class cinema and watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. That is definitely a wiser and much cheaper choice.
And in case you still want to go abroad, apply for a visa to Australia, Singapore or Canada. At least you do not have to wait in a long line or get ripped off.
*The writer is an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.
A TEACHING MOMENT
I'm not surprised that Vietnam is fertile ground for a scheme like this. Between familial reunification, to simply wanting to move to America (Do these people know how bad the American economy is?) to better educational opportunities, there are a host of reasons people would pay.
And sadly because there is so much low-level corruption in Vietnam because civil servants are so poorly paid, they may have seen this as something that has to be done - a routine government transaction.
What should the US do? As a professor and a parent - this is what I call a teaching moment. And the target audience should be Vietnamese. They should bring this guy to trial. A free and fair trial where he is presumed innocent, where the government must persuade a jury of his peers of a preponderance of guilt.
But the US cannot chastise the Vietnamese government for pervasive corruption, if we do not clean house first. There should be a review of all visa practices at US embassies and consulates, especially those where there are high numbers of applications compared to the number of approved visas. This could be an opportunity to renew financial disclosures for civil servants.
But this investigation is also important for the bilateral relationship: it will require close cooperation between US and Vietnamese law enforcement, and I believe that strong government to government cooperation only deepens bilateral ties.
By Zachary Abuza*
*The writer is a Southeast Asia analyst with the Simmons College in Boston. The opinions expressed are his own.