It should have been a routine flight from Paris to Houston for Henry Rousso, a prominent French historian and a Holocaust scholar. Instead, it became another high-profile and unflattering episode for U.S. customs authorities who enforce President Donald Trump’s border security initiatives.
Rousso, who is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University, had visited the United States many times over the past 30 years without much fuss. This time, he was on his way to a speaking engagement at Texas A&M University, traveling with a tourist visa.
“The experience wasn’t a good one,” Rousso, who was born in Egypt, said of his 10-hour detention at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, which almost led to a flight back to Paris.
Rousso said he was told by an “inexperienced official” of Customs and Border Protection that he was violating immigration law by using a tourist visa to enter the country to attend the academic conference. (He was able to deliver his speech.)
Many other high-profile figures have been detained or interrogated recently, including Muhammad Ali Jr., who was questioned on March 10 in Washington after speaking with members of Congress about his being detained last month at a Florida airport; Mem Fox, a popular Australian author who was questioned at Los Angeles International Airport; and Sidd Bikkannavar, an Indian-American NASA scientist.
Other detentions have drawn notice, including when the Afghan family was held for four days even though the father had worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan for 10 years.
“I presume that some tourists will hesitate to fly to the U.S. for a while,” Rousso said. “Why take such a risk to be treated like a criminal?”
Trump’s first executive order on travel has coincided with a broad decline in interest among international travelers in booking flights to the United States, according to several travel companies. The original order suspended visa entry from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. A revised version of the executive order, announced on March 6, excludes Iraq from the list of restricted countries and exempts citizens of the other six countries who have valid visas or are permanent residents of the United States.
“It’s the message that’s gone out around the world, that the U.S. is potentially closing for business,” said David Scowsill, the chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council.
A study from Hopper, an app that predicts when the best fares will be available, showed an overall 10 percent drop in flight searches to the United States from 102 of the 122 origin countries studied from when the first travel ban was announced until the announcement of the revised ban.
Hopper’s data also show a correlation between news media reports on the travel ban and decreased interest in booking travel to the United States.
“It seems that as the travel ban becomes featured in the news cycle, regardless of whether it’s in favor or against the travel ban,” said Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist for Hopper, “it may be reminding travelers that there’s a lot of uncertainty around whether international travelers are welcome in the U.S. and flight search demand then drops.”
That means that reports of detentions could continue to affect tourism — as could challenges to the ban by Hawaii and Washington state, which have been joined by several other states.
“The question remains whether the revised order did enough to mollify the prospective traveler from Canada, Europe or elsewhere around the world who may have been put off by the initial travel ban,” Roger Dow, president and chief executive of the U.S. Travel Association, said in a statement.
Surry said it was still too early to tell whether his study showed a short-term reaction to the travel ban or whether the ban would affect tourism to the United States in the long run. “Travel is a multibillion-dollar industry for the U.S.,” he said. “So even if tourism decreases just a few percentage points, it could have serious effects on the industry.”
Scowsill said he believed the revised order did not do enough to reverse the negative perception created by the original travel ban, but he was optimistic.
“President Trump, given his business background, with his leisure and hotel and golfing interests,” Scowsill said, “he really does understand that more people coming into the country means more American jobs.”