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Proposed US Immigration Rule Could Hurt Florida Economy

There are probably as many jokes about "snowbirds" in Florida as there are snowbirds themselves. Snowbirds are people who spend the winter months in Florida, and the rest of the year somewhere else. Increasingly, these part-time residents are foreigners - Europeans and Latin Americans, mostly - who see central Florida as a great place to vacation in the winter and even buy a home. But the continuing war on terrorism may put a damper on what's become a multi-million dollar industry. At issue is a new government proposal to reduce the standard length of a tourist visas from six months to 30 days. Immigration inspectors could still issue visas for up to six months for good cause, but the proposed regulation has visitors and business people worried.

Anna Garcia is from Britain. Her husband Guillermo is Colombian, but they've chosen Central Florida as home to raise their young daughter. She says it's not just the weather. "I mean, it's the whole life over here. It's a completely different way of living," she said. "People seem more polite, more laid back, more relaxed."

The Garcias like the area so much that Anna's parents back in Birmingham, England, have decided to start looking for their own home here. They'll rent it out when they're not using it for vacation and eventually, after retirement, they'll move here full-time. At least, that's the plan. But it may depend on a new government proposal that would limit tourist visits. The proposal from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is aimed at cutting the risk of terrorism, but Anna Garcia says it will cut a whole lot more than that.

"My father's been working for the hospital for 18 years now and he gets 15 weeks [vacation]," she explained. "You telling me they're gonna come for four weeks instead of 15? How much they have to pay in airfares to come here? No, it's ridiculous. It won't work! They'll lose a lot of people coming here and they'll lose a lot of people buying here if that happens."

Real estate professionals agree. ResortQuest International is a real estate firm which manages about 500 vacation homes in the Orlando area. Most of their customers are Latin American, Canadian or British. In fact, foreign business is so brisk here that the BBC is basing a new reality television series on ResortQuest's Orlando operation. Janice Edwards-Diaz, the company's regional sales director, says limiting tourist visas to 30 days would definitely hurt business, both in the rental and sales markets.

"We actually sell homes to people from overseas with the idea that once they purchase them from us obviously we can then turn around and manage it for them so they can go back home with peace of mind," she said.

Several trade groups, including the National Association of Home Builders, the Travel Industry Association of America and American Hotel and Lodging Association have met recently with INS officials, urging them to reconsider the proposed rule change. "Our economics department calculates that when you take into account their purchases, the tourist tax payments, etc., it means from than $1.6 billion in revenue to central Florida," said Gary Garzynski, the homebuilder association's president.

And that's just Florida. The foreign home vacation market is also hot in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Language in the INS proposal does imply there may be extensions available to foreigners who own homes in the United States, but Jim Olin, president of ResortQuest International, says implications aren't enough. If it's not spelled out clearly that foreign visitors can stay for longer than 30 days, many simply won't come.

"When anybody leaves their home to go to a second home for an extended period of time, it's very difficult to make plans when you don't know exactly how long you can stay," explained Mr. Olin. "The intent of the law is extremely well crafted; we all understand why. We just gotta see if there's a way to maybe get some greater flexibility on the front end to allow people to plan properly without hurting the Florida economy."

Not everyone's convinced a limit on tourist visas would do significant harm to the local economy. The University of Central Florida's Bill Weaver has studied real estate trends for more than 20 years.

"I mean, if you're sitting in Europe and it's cold and it's wet and you want to go to Disney [World], and somebody says, 'Well, you used to go to Disney for five weeks but now you can only go for four weeks,' are you gonna stay in Europe where it's wet and cold, or are you going to come to Disney for four weeks instead of five? I don't think people's plans are going to change materially," he concludes.

Professor Weaver says what builders and property managers like ResortQuest are really doing is using their massive lobbying force to protect their profit margins, which are higher in vacation homes than traditional housing.