A new bill, S. 203,
sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and John Kyl (R-AZ) would
impose severe restrictions on membership in the Visa Waiver Program
(VWP). Adding more restrictions to the VWP would be a huge mistake,
hindering efforts to enhance a program that provides significant
security, economic, and public diplomacy benefits through cooperation
with our closest allies around the world. Rather than adding new
restrictions, Congress should work to further expand this program.
Changes to the VWP
allows foreign travelers from member countries to enter the U.S. for up
to 90 days without the need to personally visit U.S. embassies in their
home countries to obtain a visa. After 9/11, Congress strengthened the
VWP in a manner that allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
to continue to expand the program while protecting Americans from
terrorist attacks and individuals that attempt to overstay their visas
in order to work illegally in the United States. The act required DHS
- Ensure that the online portal that travelers must use to apply for entry, ESTA, was fully operational;
- Require a visa refusal rate of 10 percent or lower from countries seeking membership; and
- Biometrically track the exit of foreign travelers by July 31, 2009.
203 would attempt to add more membership requirements, which could
stall the VWP or end it altogether. For example, DHS would be required
to collect data about lost or stolen passports from member countries
within 180 days of the act's passage. Countries that do not comply with
the mandates are to be suspended from the program, and DHS would not be
permitted to add countries that do not meet these requirements.
goal of the bill is laudable: Countries participating in the program
should share critical data such as lost and stolen passport
information. The proposed legislation, however, fails to promote such
cooperation. DHS has been working to obtain this data, but countries
have been slow to release it, while others simply do not have the
ability, whether for legal or political reasons, to share information
with the United States. These considerations mean that DHS, under this
new bill, would not meet these requirements in the time allotted.
countries would now also be required to maintain a maximum overstay
rate of 2 percent, a reduction from the current rate of 3 percent. This
requirement would be unfair to the seven countries that recently joined
VWP and would now immediately risk losing membership if the new
percentage is not met. And it is equally unfair to penalize older
member countries who are already cooperating extensively on security
and immigration enforcement matters.
In America's Interest
does not just provide the benefit of easier travel to member countries.
The benefits to the U.S. are immense, and halting VWP would have an
impact on Americans as well:
Security. The program
increases security by allowing the U.S. to know more about inbound
travelers prior to their entry on to U.S. soil. Information sharing
agreements between the U.S. and member countries help our nation to
catch serious criminals. For instance, our nation's relationship with
Singapore helped the U.S. detain 13 terrorists engaged in a plot to
bomb America in 2001. Killing VWP could hinder such cooperation.
Foreign travelers spend as much as three times the amount of domestic
travelers during their time in America, contributing to tourism and
retail growth. In 2008, tourists spent over $100 billion on travel in
the United States. If VWP were to stall or die, travelers would be more
inclined to vacation in a country whose travel restrictions were
friendlier to foreign visitors. The government would also be forced to
spend more tax dollars on agents and technologies to process visas. The
Government Accounting Office has estimated that returning to the visa
system would cost the State Department $739 million to process the
added workload with a further $522-810 million in annual costs.
Finally, eliminating the U.S. VWP program could cause partner countries
with their own visa waiver program equivalents to retaliate by pulling
U.S. membership. If this happens, Americans wishing to travel abroad
could incur costs of over $100 or more per country in which they wish
Public Diplomacy. The program is a tremendous
public diplomacy tool. Membership conveys to countries that the U.S.
trusts them--thereby expanding the roster of America's allies.
by Congress relating to the VWP should focus not on adding more
requirements but on strengthening the program while increasing security:
- Recertify Legacy Member Countries.
Current law requires countries admitted prior to the 2007 restrictions
to become recertified under the new requirements. DHS, with
congressional oversight, needs to follow through with the
recertification process. This would ensure uniform conformity within
the VWP--equating to additional security. Such a solution would be more
acceptable to our allies and likely to promote more effective
- Look for Opportunities to Bring In More Countries.
Congress should look for policies that would encourage more countries
to be admitted into VWP. Bringing in more countries contributes to
collective and national security by providing an incentive for nations
to increase their own security protections. It also allows consular
officers to focus on security and catching dangerous
individuals--instead of spending time processing visas.
- Provide an Alternative to the Current Biometric Exit Mandate.
One requirement from the post-9/11 VWP mandates could pose a real
challenge to the program's future: DHS must biometrically track the
exit of all foreign travelers by July 31, 2009. While DHS can track
some of this data easily, it is near impossible to track the exit of
all individuals from the multiple land border exists each year.
Congress needs to alter the mandate to preserve VWP while instituting
feasible exit tracking.
A Matter of National Security
should not destroy the VWP by instituting unworkable requirements.
Doing so would decrease security and alienate our allies while
battering America's already-damaged economy.