January 25, 2007

January 25, 2007 | Commentary on

Visa reform

National security ought to be one issue where we can all agree. Unfortunately, that common ground is often not so easy to locate, as party politics and even divisions among liberals and conservatives among themselves take on a life of their own.

One issue that came before Congress this week, however, ought to be a winner on all counts: the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Act of 2007, introduced by Sen. George Voinovich, Ohio Republican, and cosponsored by Republicans Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Sen. Ted Stevens, as well as Democrats Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. In the House, the bill was introduced by Republican Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania. It is greatly to the credit of Mr. Voinovich and his cosponsors that they are taking the leadership on this issue.

The legislation is designed to improve cooperation with important allies of the United States in the war against terrorism, strengthen U.S. national security interests, as well as promote American economic competitiveness. All applicants would need to demonstrate enhanced travel security requirements, accept new agreements on counter-terrorism cooperation and information sharing and be close allies of the United States in the global war on terrorism.

The problem, which the bill specifically seeks to rectify, is that some of the most reliable allies of the United States in the war against terrorism have found themselves on the wrong side of the U.S. visa regime and, as a consequence, have experienced a serious upsurge in anti-American sentiment. Looking at this issue through the lens of American national security and international leadership helps you understand how critically important it is that that issue be resolved.

Under current rules, waivers of the usual visa requirements for entry into the United States are automatically extended to countries that meet a certain set of criteria. Those countries, 27 in total, include Australia, New Zealand and Japan, but are mostly located in Western Europe. The criteria have been based on the rejection rate of applicants by consular officials and the rate of overstays of 90 tourist and business visas. As it stands to reason, these criteria are reflections of economics, not national security. In other words, in Europe at least, it is a persisting legacy of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, Britain, which has produced a homegrown set of terrorists carrying U.K. passports, has been in the visa-waiver program since its inception in 1986.

No new countries have been admitted to the program since 2001, when national security concerns became overridingly important for the United States and visa regimes were tightened. Some of the unfortunate consequences have been a decline in travel to the United States and a decline in foreign students seeking entry into American universities, as well as a precipitous drop in foreign opinion polls of American leadership.

Among the countries affected is Poland, which has never once wavered in its commitment to participate in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which has offered crucial political support and intelligence cooperation. Others are smaller but equally staunch allies throughout Central and Eastern Europe -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic countries, as well as Cyprus, Malta and Greece. The same problem also besets U.S.-South Korean relations, where it has become a huge political issue.

One potential sticking point in the legislation is that it proposes a pilot program of five countries initially -- the most the sponsors considered politically feasible in the current immigration climate on Capitol Hill. As 13 countries are on the waiting list, a simple set of criteria fairly applied would be a more equitable solution.

Ever since President Bush promised in Riga, Latvia, in November that he would put his weight behind a revision of the visa-waiver program, expectations in the region have been running high and the media have been breathlessly following the issue's every twist and turn. Two weeks ago in Brussels, a U.S. official predicted movement on the issue, which caused another round of media excitement. It is critically important that those expectations not be crushed.

Our allies and partners will continue to need access to the opportunities the United States has to offer. If we fail to grasp this, the beneficiary of their talents and energy will be the European Union and Australia. And in the long war against terrorism, the United States will continue to need allies and partners.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times