Everybody wants homeland security that keeps Americans safe; protects individual freedoms; promotes economic growth; and improves the nation’s image around the world. Achieving this lofty objective in real life is no easy task. Every once in a while, however, Washington gets it right…and so it goes with congressionally mandated reforms to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
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. Before 9/11, twenty seven countries were in the program. After 9/11, no new countries were added. Then Congress passed legislation reforming the program that allowed eight new countries join including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, South Korea, and Malta.
Last week ambassadors from the eight countries hosted a reception for Congressional staff on the Hill. Attendees included House Subcommittee on Europe chairman Robert Wexler (D-FL) who helped spearhead the legislation. Wexler declared, “this is an especially gratifying moment and one that I believe is long overdue….[The VWP has had a] positive impact on transatlantic relations and America’s partnerships globally…[this is] exactly the kind of stimulus we need during hard economic times.” Considering the VWP brings in about 60 billion dollars a year (that’s more than half the foreign travel and tourist dollars spent in the United States), he makes a good point.
Wexler wasn’t the only one. Also voicing support for the program were Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH); John Shimkus (R-IL) Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE).
What nobody talked about, however, was the fact that reform and expansion of the program are about to come to grinding halt; leaving out key U.S. allies that are lined up to participate like Poland, Taiwan, and Israel. In fact, a new bill, S. 203, sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and John Kyl (R-AZ) might kill the whole program outright if it were adopted.
Rather than roll back VWP, Congress ought to be expanding the program. VWP adds security because countries that participate in the VWO share more information and provide better safeguards for preventing terrorist and criminal travel and discouraging “visa overstays” than countries where citizens are issued visas to travel to the United States.
What Congress should be doing is:
Actions by Congress relating to the VWP should focus not on adding more requirements but on strengthening the program while increasing security:
- Recertifying Legacy Member Countries using the same standards as the Countries that have recently joined the VWP. 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 information sharing.
- Looking 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.
- Providing 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.