Last week, President Bush said he wanted to expand a program allowing citizens of traditional American allies to enter the United States without a visa. Apparently, the president has not considered that not everyone born or naturalized in “friendly” countries wishes us well.
The bombings in England less than 18 months ago revealed a new dimension of terrorism and, in turn, popularized a new term: “homegrown terrorists.” These are second- or third-generation citizens targeting their own neighbors. Peter Newman of London University’s War Studies Institute calls this dimension “a novelty” that hadn’t been seen in his native England until July 2005 when British born and bred citizens – with jobs, families, and lives – began planting bombs in busses.
Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber from South London, was just such a person. He came not from a Middle Eastern country but one of our staunchest allies. The son of an English mother and Jamaican father, Reid grew up in a London suburb attending some of the finer schools. He was not Muslim until later in life. In other words, he “profiled well.” But most of all, because he was a British citizen, he was eligible to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
Established in 1986, the Visa Waiver Program enables citizens of certain countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. According to the U.S. Immigration Support website, the program was established by the United States and its allies to promote better relations by “eliminating unnecessary barriers to travel, stimulating the tourism industry, and permitting the Department of State to focus consular resources in other areas.”
Homegrown terrorists, however, have caused many to rethink the merits of the Visa Waiver Program.
Last July, one year after the London bombings, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report stating that more than 15 million people entered the U.S. under the VWP. In analyzing the benefits and risks, the GAO report listed a number of unsettling facts including this one:
“[S]tolen passports from visa waiver countries are prized travel documents among terrorists, criminals, and immigration law violators, creating an additional risk. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has intercepted many fraudulent documents at U.S. ports of entry, DHS officials acknowledged that an undetermined number of inadmissible aliens may have entered the United States using a stolen or lost passport from a visa waiver country.”
The GAO also reported that, since its inception, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “has taken some actions to mitigate the program’s risks; however, the U.S. government has faced difficulties in further mitigating these risks.” Finally, the GAO identified several weaknesses in reassessing the criteria required for a country to maintain its VWP status.
Most citizens from VWP countries may enter the U.S. visa-free for up to 90 days. In doing so, these travelers can avoid security screening. Homegrown terrorists usually don’t need that much time to implement their “craft.” For those who do, their chances to elude authorities must surely be better than those on bona fide visas. (Remember, some of the 9/11 terrorists overstayed their visas without threat of deportation.)
Currently 27 countries (including England) participate in the Visa Waiver Program. Last week, in a friendly gesture to Estonia and other former communist-bloc countries, President Bush announced that he wanted to expand this program to include more countries. After meeting with the Estonian president, Bush said, “I’m going to work with our Congress and our international partners to modify our Visa Waiver Program. It’s a way to make sure that nations like Estonia qualify more quickly for the program and, at the same time, strengthen the program's security components.”
At the same time, Bush said he wanted to “assure members of Congress that in loosening the visa-waiver issue, or changing the visa-waiver issue, that we'll still be able to protect our country from people who would exploit the Visa Waiver Program to come to our country to do harm.” However, Bush’s National Security Council spokesman said that the president would seek not only to expand the list of eligible countries, but also relax the criteria for select countries that promise to meet new enhanced security requirements.
Given the GAO report, expansion coupled with relaxation of certain provisions of the VWP would strain an overtaxed Department of Homeland Security past the breaking point. Currently, “DHS cannot effectively achieve its mission to monitor and report on ongoing law enforcement and security concerns in visa waiver countries due to insufficient resources.” (GAO Report)
The VWP already grants access to future Richard Reids. A dual loosening of the VWP will simply allow greater access to other homegrown terrorists.
...Who may be seeking to hook up with their American-born counterparts.
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