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Visa Waiver Reform Ready for Next Step By: Jena Baker McNeill and James Jay Carafano
The Heritage Foundation | Thursday, October 23, 2008

In a White House Rose Garden ceremony on October 17, President Bush announced that seven countries had met the requirements for admission into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Within a month citizens from those countries will be allowed to travel to the United States for tourism and business without having to first obtain a visa. The program also adds new security guarantees to combat terrorist and criminal travel as well as deterring "overstays" (persons remaining in the U.S. unlawfully).

This announcement is a positive step for visa reform. No countries have been admitted to the VWP since 9/11. Adding security while facilitating travel has proven to be a winning formula. Congress should now build on the successes of VWP reform.

Security and Freedom of Travel

The VWP allows individuals from approved member countries to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. Initially, only countries with visa refusal rates under 3 percent were permitted membership. In 2007, however, Congress modified the requirement, allowing countries whose rates were under 10 percent, given certain security benchmarks were met. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was required to declare the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) fully operational. ETSA is an online system that allows for the pre-clearance of travelers planning to come to the United States, ensuring travelers qualify under VWP before they board the plane. While currently voluntary, as of January 2009, ESTA will be mandatory for all participants in the VWP.

Additionally, by law DHS had to ensure that there is a system to verify the departure of not less than 97 percent of foreign nationals who entered the country through U.S. airports. There have been laws on the books since 1996 requiring government to track the exit of visitors to the United States, but an effective system has never been implemented—until now. As a result of the VWP reforms, DHS is implementing the first ever real-time exit system as part of the US-VISIT program.

Finally, in adding new countries to the VWP, DHS added a host of important bilateral security agreements, including effective sharing of lost and stolen passport information. These cooperative agreements actually provide more security enhancements than the process of formally issuing visas.

Next Steps

The recent announcement by President Bush included seven countries: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuanian, Slovakia, and South Korea. DHS has also identified several "roadmap" countries that have indicated interest in the VWP and whose visa refusal rejections are on course to meet program requirements within the short-term, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland, and Romania.

These countries see admission into the VWP as a clear sign of trust. And this trust has led to positive benefits in the United States, as DHS has used the VWP to assist in law enforcement and crime-fighting efforts, catching criminals attempting to flee to other countries. Finally, coupled with ESTA, the VWP is a boon for security. ESTA ensures that we know more about the people coming into the United States prior to entry on U.S. soil—deterring those who want to harm Americans. In order to continue this progress, Congress and DHS should:

  1. Re-examine Barriers to Future Success. The authority to grant waivers for countries to join the VWP—even if they fulfill all the required bilateral security guarantees—expires next year unless DHS can record the exit of all visitors under the US-VISIT program using biometric information (such as fingerprints). DHS will not able to achieve that goal because of the expense and complexity of putting such a system in place. In order to extend VWP reforms, Congress must reconsider its legislative mandate, either extending to the DHS authority to bring more countries into the VWP regime or replacing the requirement for universal biometric exit with more cost-effective and achievable exit controls.

  2. Continue to Add Roadmap Countries. With a clear path to achieving VWP status now established by the seven countries that recently entered the program, other nations can learn from their example. Designating countries as "roadmap" countries provides a set of clear metrics for membership into VWP. Working with these countries throughout the process gives them a sense of transparency and a clear set of goals. This is especially helpful for our allies who may see delay in membership as a sign of distrust. A number of allies have not gained VWP membership but are on the right track. We should continue dialogue with these countries as they move closer to meeting program requirements.

  3. Ensure ESTA Is User-Friendly. January 2009 will be the first time that ESTA will become mandatory. Although the program is operational, DHS must have the resources and the priority to continue to make ESTA quick, easy, and secure. This means making ESTA available in multiple languages and providing an efficient process to appeal denied applications.

A Useful Tool

Through VWP reform America now has a tool for managing international travel that will help keep this nation free, safe, and prosperous. It is now up to the Congress to ensure the resources and the legislative mandate to build on the success of VWP reform.

Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Davis Institute and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Allison Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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