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).
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
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.