Senator Diane Feinstein hates it. FBI Director Robert Mueller raised red flags in Congressional testimony and a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last February. What to do about the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that allows citizens from the US and other selected countries to visit one another for up to 90 days for business or tourist travel without a visa? The answer, according a recent study released by The Heritage Foundation, is to continue to expand the program. The report’s findings are based on a detailed assessment of reforms implemented since 9/11, as well as the economic and public diplomacy aspects of the program.
“Visa Waiver Program: A Plan to Build on Success,” also recommends the next steps in the VWP based on an evaluation of current and future threats, an assessment of ongoing government programs, and an analysis of trends in trade and international travel. The critical necessary steps the task force identified are: (1) Congress should transfer permanent waiver authority to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and decouple VWP from the biometric air-exit mandate, a mandate that would require DHS to biometrically track the exit of foreign passengers leaving the United States by air, so that the current DHS visa waiver authority does not expire should DHS not deploy air exit by July 1, 2009. (2) Congress should reiterate that long-time VWP member countries, just like new members, must enter into bilateral agreements to implement post-9/11 VWP security requirements. (3) Congress and DHS should work together to ensure that the biennial security reviews of VWP member countries are a meaningful exercise. (4) Congress should ensure that the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is user-friendly through multiple-language availability and reliance on quality databases.
The report written based on the rigorous analysis of lessons learned from the past few years by a non-partisan, independent task force of scholars, researchers, and former government officials, concludes that “next steps” are vital for enhancing the security of the United States and its international partners, spurring economic growth, improving protection of individual rights and privacy, and burnishing America’s reputation as a welcoming and confident member of the community of free nations that embraces engagement between its citizens and those of its friends and allies around the world.