A Visa Reform Plan for Congress

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A Visa Reform Plan for Congress

May 25, 2006 4 min read Download Report
Jim Carafano
Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Since 9/11, Congress has done far too little to encourage foreign visitors to come to the United States. Foreign travel to America has still not recov­ered to pre-9/11 levels, and congressional inaction threatens to undermine the com­petitiveness of U.S. society. By developing an action plan to speed the process of issuing visas and expanding the Visa Waiver Program, Congress can both rees­tablish America's reputation as an opening and welcoming country and make the nation more secure against foreign threats.

Visas and Terrorist Travel. In the hands of a ter­rorist, a visa can be a deadly weapon, as demon­strated by the 9/11 hijackers, who all had U.S. visas. Terrorists have attempted to exploit every possible means of travel to enter the United States, but they represent a minuscule fraction of those attempting to enter by any means, lawful or illegal. It makes no sense to fixate on abolishing or overly restricting any form of legitimate travel in the hope that it would keep all the terrorists out.

Indeed, keeping visas out of the hands of people with legitimate interests in traveling to the United States can be just as dangerous. Visitors strengthen U.S. bonds with the rest of the world, promoting economic growth, intellectual freedom, and cul­tural awareness. In contrast, the long-term eco­nomic losses created by the reduction in travel to the United States can be greater than those caused by a terrorist attack. Likewise, isolating America from the world undercuts efforts to encourage the spread of freedom and democracy.

There Is a War to Win. Win­ning the long war against terror­ists who seek to diminish and isolate the United States means promoting both security and free­dom-and doing both in equal measure. A congressional visa reform program could accomplish both goals. Security is strength­ened by raising international stan­dards on passport and visa controls, improving intelligence support and infor­mation sharing in support of visa issuance and monitoring, and focusing counterterrorism efforts on the highest risks. These goals should be the cen­terpiece of any congressional visa reform effort.

What Congress Should Do. Congress should adopt three initiatives that would help to achieve these ends:

End the requirement to interview 100 percent of visa applicants. Congress recently required that every visa applicant be interviewed by a consular officer. In many parts of the world, the interview requirement represents a significant burden in terms of the expense and inconve­nience to report and wait for the interview and lost time from work. Likewise, the issuing offic­ers are under pressure to speed through the interviews and make snap judgments that might deny visas to legitimate travelers or miss a serious security threat. Congress should amend the law to require the Department of State to conduct interviews based on a risk-based assessment conducted jointly with the Department of Homeland Security. The depart­ments should have the option to waive inter­views for countries, classes of travelers, and frequent visitors from trusted companies, gov­ernments, and academic institutions. This would allow both departments to focus their scarce resources on the greatest threats. As counterintuitive as it may seem, interviewing fewer people would probably increase rather than decrease the likelihood of keeping visas out of the hands of terrorists by allowing inter­viewers to focus their attention on high-risk individuals.

Establish electronic travel authorization.It is long past time for the United States to join the 21st century by creating the means to issue and monitor visas. Other nations, such as Australia, already use electronic travel authorization. For low-risk countries and classes of travelers, the United States should implement on-line visa applications. This would greatly facilitate travel to the United States, significantly reducing the cost and inconvenience of personally applying for a visa. These visas could also be paperless, automatically entered into the US-VISIT system that records the entry of all visitors into the United States. In addition, since US-VISIT records the biometric (e.g., fingerprint) data of visa holders and screens these data for security purposes, the likelihood of a known security or criminal threat entering the United States through an electronic travel authorization is very small.

Expand the Visa Waiver Program.The Visa Waiver Program allows most visitors from par­ticipating countries to enter the United States for up to 90 days without a visa as long as they have valid passports from their countries. In turn, U.S. citizens with valid passports do not need visas to visit these countries. Currently, 27 countries participate in the program. All of the countries agree to common passport standards, including requiring machine-readable pass­ports (which can be checked more easily and accurately) and imprinting biometric identifi­ers on the passports to identify individuals more accurately and reduce fraud. The Depart­ment of Homeland Security audits countries in the program to ensure compliance. Countries that fail to meet the program standards can be and have been removed or restricted from full participation. Adding countries to the program increases security because these nations must pledge to maintain the same security standards as the United States. In addition, adding coun­ties would greatly facilitate visiting America. In many places, the price of a U.S. visa is consid­ered exorbitant. In Poland, for example, the visa application fee is a month's salary for an average worker and is nonrefundable because it pays for processing the application. If the visa is denied for any reason, the applicant has simply lost the money. Expanding the Visa Waiver Pro­gram to countries in East Europe and Asia, where the United States has growing economic, cultural, and security ties, could both strengthen America's bonds to these nations and enhance travel security.

Conclusion.There is much that Congress could and should do to diminish the threat of travel by terrorists and criminals and to reestablish America as the world's most welcoming nation. It is time for Congress to act on visa reform.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and 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, at The Heritage Foundation.


Jim Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute