Why Is Washington Targeting Hungary’s Legal Travelers?

Why Is Washington Targeting Hungary’s Legal Travelers?

Do legal visitors from Hungary really threaten the security of the U.S. more than millions of poorly vetted illegal immigrants?

The Biden administration introduced a new regulation during the summer of 2023: since it could not cope with the illegal immigration crisis on the southwest border of the United States, Washington is aiming to cut back legal arrivals from one of its NATO allies: Hungary.

On August 1, the U.S. embassy to Hungary announced that it is reducing the validity of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) due to the Hungarian government’s “inaction to meet Visa Waiver Program Security Requirements.” No other participant of the forty-country program was affected. Then why Hungary?

According to the embassy’s official statement, Budapest’s simplified naturalization process granted Hungarian citizenship to nearly one million people between 2011 and 2020 without adequate security measures. Therefore, procedures for all Hungarian passport holders who want to benefit from the Visa Waiver Program have been modified: the validity of ESTA has been reduced from two years to one year. In addition, the validity of an ESTA for Hungarian passport holders has been limited to a single use. During the press conference, spokesman Matthew Miller stated that there were “criminals who had obtained Hungarian passports because the verification of the identity of those applying for Hungarian citizenship was not adequate prior to 2020.” Miller notably did not mention any specific case.

The argumentation of the State Department seems inconsistent. Firstly, during an ESTA application, Hungarian citizens born abroad were automatically rejected even before August, consequently having to go through the regular U.S. visa process. Secondly, the decision does not really stem the arrival of Hungarian citizens—and, according to the embassy’s argumentation, criminals—to the United States; it only limits the time of ESTA’s validity.

Lastly, in the broader context of Biden’s immigration policies, the State Department’s argumentation raises further questions. Since the inauguration of the Biden administration until the end of June 2023, 5.607 million illegal border crossings were registered at America’s southwest border alone. In addition, according to some Customs and Border Protection (CBP) sources of Fox News, 1.2 million getaways may have crossed the border during the first two years of the administration. In the first half of 2023, more than 170,000 individuals reached the United States via the CBP One Application—which means that they successfully scheduled appointments to present themselves at a port of entry, to enter the United States without proper documentation. The daily practices on the southwest border demonstrate well that the government’s de facto open-borders policy is encouraging millions of illegal migrants to travel to the United States. Needless to say, it is impossible to verify the identity of this sort of deluge of people. Owing to the limited legal and physical capacities for detention, most of them disappear inside the United States during their asylum processes. If the administration really considered illegal immigration as a serious security challenge, they would most certainly insist on strict security vetting.

Unlike Mexico or the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America, Hungary is not home to extended organized criminal networks. While there are a significant number of Latin American cartel members among illegal immigrants who cross the southwest border, there is no hard evidence for any similar trends regarding Hungarian criminals. Yet Central and South American citizens can easily cross the U.S. border as “asylum seekers” while legal Hungarian travelers have become the target of a much more rigorous verification process.

It is no surprise then that some in the Hungarian government consider the act as part of the Biden administration’s wider foreign policy approach towards Budapest. American-Hungarian bilateral relations have been seriously deteriorating since January 2021, and while U.S. officials insist that there is no political motivation behind the State Department’s move, even prominent media outlets such as Reuters highlighted the “coincidence” that ESTA restrictions were put in place a day after the Hungarian ruling party boycotted an emergency parliament session called by opposition parties to vote on Sweden’s NATO bid.

According to Hungarian officials, Washington wanted more information about Hungarian citizens as well; the state secretary at the Hungarian Ministry of Interior, Bence Rétvári, stated that the United States demanded the personal data of some 900,000 Hungarian dual citizens living abroad—such a request can be seen as being well beyond the boundaries of a relationship of two allied nations. Rétvári emphasized that Hungary would not provide the data because it would jeopardize the security of Hungarians living abroad. For instance, there was no guarantee that the data of Hungarians in Transcarpathia wouldn’t be handed over to Ukraine or Slovakia, which ban dual citizenship. “It is clear that [the Biden administration’s policymakers] are taking revenge on Hungarians because Hungary is not complying with the unjustified request of the United States of America,” said Rétvári.

Debates between two governments, even if they are allies, are not unusual. But the decision of the Biden administration to punish ordinary citizens who have nothing to do with the disagreement between Budapest and Washington is an unwise move, especially when the State Department’s argumentation does not fit into the reality of U.S. immigration policy: the security of the United States is not threatened by Hungarian ESTA holders, but by the millions of unchecked illegal immigrants who have been arriving in the territory of the United States.

Viktor Marsai, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Budapest-based Migration Research Institute, an associate professor at the University of Public Service and a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.

Image: Shutterstock.