May 6, 2005 | Backgrounder on National Security and Defense
The term "homeland security" is misleading. Virtually no homeland security program can be implemented effectively without the support and cooperation of America's friends and allies around the world. On the other hand, security is not about "pushing our borders out," making other nations bear the burden of protecting U.S. citizens. Homeland security is really a cooperative effort that enables nations to serve their mutual interests and protect their citizens-as well as the global economic lifelines that carry the free flow of goods, services, peoples, and ideas-against the threat of transnational terrorism.
Strengthening the international instruments that help to achieve this goal has to be a U.S. priority. One important tool is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which can be used to enhance security, protect individual liberties, advance civil society, promote economic growth, and build geostrategic partnerships. The United States should work with other states to improve this program and expand it to include increasingly important strategic nations, such as India, South Korea, and the new democracies in Eastern Europe.
The Visa Waiver Program
Under the Visa Waiver Program, citizens from certain countries are permitted to enter the United States for tourism or business (but not for employment or formal study) for up to 90 days without a visa. Although these travelers are inspected at U.S. points of entry, they do not undergo the more rigorous background investigations and in-country interviews associated with regular visa applications.
Twenty-seven countries currently participate in the VWP: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
To participate in the VWP, a country must at least:
The VWP is intended primarily to facilitate entry for foreign visitors who are likely to return to their home country within the 90-day limit.
Both the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) play roles in implementing the VWP. The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs evaluates visa applications and issues visas to foreign nationals seeking to visit the United States. Under Section 402 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the Secretary of Homeland Security establishes and administers the rules for granting visas to non-U.S. citizens.
In addition to setting overall visa policy, DHS agencies play a significant enforcement role. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) monitors compliance at the border. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Bureau approves immigration petitions, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are responsible for finding and removing violators of U.S. immigration laws.
The VWP has reasonable limits. Entrants cannot petition to extend their stays in the United States except in cases of emergency. They also cannot normally change to another nonimmigrant or immigrant status. Finally, except in asylum cases, VWP applicants must waive in writing any right to review or appeal of a CBP officer's determination about their admissibility or deportation. Some travelers from VWP countries are ineligible to participate in the program. These include anyone who has been arrested, has a criminal record, has a serious communicable disease, has previously been denied admission, has been deported, or has overstayed the 90-day limit on a previous visit.
In consultation with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security has the power to add or remove countries from the VWP. In fact, countries have been removed from the VWP. In February 2002, the Attorney General ended Argentina's participation after an economic crisis in that country led to a sharp rise in the number of Argentine nationals seeking to stay longer than 90 days in the United States. In April 2003, Uruguay lost its eligibility because of the high percentage of Uruguayan nationals who either sought to overstay their visas or were denied entry into the United States.
As mandated by legislation, the DHS and State Department conduct joint reviews of existing VWP countries every two years. These reviews resemble the process used to decide whether to include a country in the VWP in the first place. In both cases, interagency assessment teams visit the relevant country for several weeks to collect information on a range of issues including lost and stolen passports, the naturalization process, and law enforcement policies.
The Program's Importance
Congress created the Visa Waiver Pilot Program after the number of foreign tourists needing visas began to overwhelm U.S. embassies and consulates in the mid-1980s. American officials determined that relaxing visa rules was more cost-effective than expanding consular staffs when dealing with countries that met certain standards regarding border security, financial stability, and probability of return.
In addition to saving resources, the other benefits of the VWP include allowing U.S. government representatives to focus their attention on higher-risk applicants. In practice, because making it easier to travel between the United States and other countries facilitates short-term business travel and tourism, the Visa Waiver Program has also proven an engine for economic growth and public diplomacy. For example, over 12.7 million visitors from VWP countries entered the United States in 2004. Of these, approximately 4 million came from Britain. In 2003, 13.5 million foreigners, or approximately 49 percent of the total entrants for that year, entered the United States under the VWP. A 2002 General Accounting Office report concluded that abolishing the VWP would likely impose major economic and diplomatic costs on the United States.
Finally, the VWP is important because it helps to build security partnerships. By agreeing to common standards and policies, participating countries help to limit illegal entry and unlawful presence in their countries, hindering travel by terrorists and transnational criminals.
Strengthening the Program
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress has tightened controls over the VWP. The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 requires nationals from VWP countries to use a machine-readable passport to enter the United States without a visa. Machine-readable passports have one or two lines of letters, numbers, and hatch marks at the bottom of the passport photo page that can be read by optical scanners. DHS regulations also established that each VWP applicant, including children, must present an individual document, thereby preventing family members from continuing to apply for admission under one passport.
The original deadline for implementing new standards was October 1, 2003, but technical problems led the Administration to use the congressionally authorized waiver to extend the deadline for almost all VWP countries to October 26, 2004. Most VWP governments had been issuing such passports only during the past few years, so many of their citizens still owned valid old-style passports.
To further smooth implementation of the new rules, the DHS decided to allow CBP officers to make a one-time exception to this requirement. After October 16, 2004, travelers arriving in the United States from VWP countries without a visa and without a machine-readable passport were allowed to enter for up to 90 days, but CBP officers annotated their passport and gave them a letter stating that they must obtain a new passport or visa for any future travel to the United States.
Under the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, Congress required all VWP participants to use biometric passports by October 26, 2004. Passports containing biometric data have embedded electronic chips that contain a computerized record of the owner's observable biological features that can be used to identify that individual. These can include fingerprints, iris/retina patterns, and as many as 1,800 facial characteristics. Whereas a machine-readable passport merely allows agents to verify a traveler's name, documents containing biometric data allow verification of a person's identity.
The United States and other countries are adhering to the international technical standards for biometric data established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency. The technical standards address a number of complex issues, including interoperability of machine-readable passports and passport readers and protection from unauthorized use of biometric data. In May 2003, the ICAO selected facial recognition as the required globally interoperable biometric. One advantage of using biometric data over name-based watch lists is that it avoids the problems that arise when an innocent person's name resembles that of someone on a watch list.
The European Union (EU) initially asked for a two-year extension of the October 26, 2004, deadline to allow VWP countries time to develop and introduce the new technology. The Administration supported the request, but Congress agreed to extend the deadline by only one year, to October 26, 2005. Foreign governments are proceeding to develop and implement plans to issue biometric passports and other travel documents to accord with U.S. and ICAO requirements. Nevertheless, foreign and U.S. officials acknowledge that it is unlikely that Britain, France, Japan, and many other VWP countries will be able to meet even this extended deadline.
As October 2005 approaches, pressures on Congress to postpone the deadline again are certain to increase. While there is some frustration over the pace of implementing the new passports, it is more important to get the program right than to get it done fast. A quickly implemented program that lacks interoperability, cannot perform as expected, or incurs excessive costs will not help to increase security.
Since biometric passports are not in place except for diplomats, children under 14, and passengers older than 79, VWP travelers became subject to the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) processing on September 30, 2004. Under this program, CBP officers make inkless digital scans of two fingers and digitally photograph the face of each visa holder at the U.S. point of entry to verify that the person entering the United States is the same individual who was issued a U.S. visa or holds a valid passport from their home country. The biometric and biographic data are also checked against the FBI criminal database and terrorist watch lists, including IDENT, the DHS automated biometric identification system. US-VISIT technology allows agents to scan travelers' information electronically from visitors' travel documents, saving time and increasing accuracy. US-VISIT will serve as a stopgap measure until the new VWP passport standards are fully implemented.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the problem of stolen and lost passports from VWP countries. As security at points of entry improves, terrorists and transnational criminals are increasingly using illicitly obtained passports from VWP countries to bypass the visa issuance process. According to an investigation by the DHS Inspector General:
[T]he lost and stolen passport problem is the greatest security problem associated with the Visa Waiver Program. Our country is vulnerable because gaps in our treatment of lost and stolen passports remain.
Stolen passports from VWP countries are especially valued on the black market because they facilitate entry into the United States. Today, passports that are stolen or obtained in some other illicit manner are being used to enter the United States. If the program's credibility is to be maintained, enhancing cooperation among VWP countries to address this issue must be a priority. The alternative-canceling the VWP-makes little sense. Ending visa waivers might require processing up to 14 million more visa applications every year at a cost of up to an additional $810 million annually. U.S. counterterrorism resources can be put to more efficient and effective uses.
As Robert Leiken has written, the solution has to be "mend, don't end, visa waivers." When all of its post-9/11 improvements are in place and combined with more vigilant oversight, the Visa Waiver Program will significantly enhance security, trade, and travel. While it is not the solution to all of the challenges posed by terrorism, it is a valuable layer in a security system designed to stop terrorists, promote economic growth, and respect individual liberties.
Future Strategic Challenges
International cooperation is vital to U.S. economic and security priorities, and it is the centerpiece of American foreign policy and strategy. As President George W. Bush declared in his 2005 State of the Union Address, "our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations." The VWP has a proven record not only of facilitating travel, but also of strengthening U.S. strategic partnerships with countries around the world.
That said, many nations that have become increasingly important friends and allies of the United States deeply resent that they have been excluded from the VWP and that the United States has not established unambiguous standards and a clear certification road map for achieving VWP status.
Poland is a case in point. Poland has been one of the staunchest backers of American foreign policies for the past decade. For example, Polish officials supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq and deployed some 2,500 troops to Iraq, despite criticism from other EU governments.
In addition, nearly 9 million Americans of Polish ancestry currently reside in the United States. Leaders of this community decry Poland's exclusion from the VWP for impeding visits by family members from Poland and treating their pro-American country as a second-class nation compared with other, less supportive European states. During a visit to Washington in August, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski raised the visa issue with President Bush and other U.S. officials.
The United States has not responded adequately to these concerns, principally because Poland and other new Eastern European democracies like the Czech Republic have exorbitant visa rejection rates. In some cases, the United States has tried to ameliorate the issue by providing additional visa issuance support.
On the other side of the world, South Korea has also been left out in the cold. The Republic of Korea (ROK) is one of the most important U.S. allies in East Asia. The two countries have adhered to a mutual defense treaty since October 1953. The ROK government has deployed over 3,000 troops to Iraq, making it the third largest contributor to the U.S.-led military coalition there.
People-to-people connections are especially important in the case of South Korea and the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul, which has the largest single U.S. nonimmigrant visa processing post in the world, issues an average of 1,800 to 1,900 visas per day. In 2003, about 420,000 South Koreans applied for U.S. nonimmigrant visas; 397,000 of these applications were approved, for a rejection rate of around 5 percent. Some 680,000 Koreans traveled to the United States in 2003, and more than 400,000 American citizens visited the ROK.
Regrettably, U.S. visa policies are antagonizing South Koreans and contributing to the growth of anti-Americanism. South Korean business representatives have expressed concern that the more rigorous U.S. visa policies adopted since the September 2001 terrorist attacks have impeded commerce between the two countries. ROK travel agencies reported a steep decline in travel to the United States after the American government changed its entry visa requirements for South Koreans on August 2, 2004. Previously, the U.S. embassy exempted individuals between the ages of 55 and 80 from appearing for a nonimmigrant visa interview, resulting in only about 65 percent of applicants being interviewed. Under the new rules, less than 5 percent of South Korean applicants (primarily diplomatic or official passport holders and their dependents, children younger than 14, and adults older than 79) are exempt from the visa process, which requires applicants to be digitally fingerprinted and to appear in person for an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.
India, the world's largest democracy and an emerging economic engine in Asia, is another important Asian country left outside the VWP security wire. Indian information technology companies have already become an important source of outsourcing services for the United States, and the United States and India share many strategic interests.
As with the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, India and South Korea have been unable to meet the criteria established by the VWP. For example, in the case of South Korea, U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and other American government representatives have said that the ROK cannot join the VWP until the number of illegal South Korean residents in the United States significantly declines. Additionally South Korea's visa rejection rate is higher than the 3 percent maximum. Finally, ROK officials estimate that some 70,000 South Korean passports are lost or stolen each year and then traded on the black market, a factor that has impeded Seoul's participation in the VWP.
While these obstacles cannot be ignored, they should not be allowed to become insurmountable roadblocks. Rather than being seen as impediments to cooperation, visa policies should become catalysts for strengthening U.S. relations with emerging friends and allies.
The best solution is for developing countries to undertake fundamental reforms in governance and economic policy to strengthen their economies and civil society. These reforms will significantly reduce their visa rejection rates because U.S. officials will be more confident that visitors will not illegally overstay their visits in an attempt to live and work in the United States unlawfully.
A case in point is India. According to the Financial Times, direct foreign investment in India is "anemic"-$4 billion compared to $50 billion for China. The lack of foreign investment has hamstrung India's efforts to expand and update its infrastructure, the sort of modernization that is critical to spurring further economic expansion.
In large part, the lack of investment reflects the absence of reform in the Indian economy. According to the 2004 Index of Economic Freedom, "the government continues to restrict 700 sectors to small-scale industries, preventing larger companies from taking advantage of economies of scale." Trade barriers and excessive regulation discourage overseas private investment. Additionally, artificial barriers that keep U.S. goods and servvices out of Indian markets have slowed the growth of robust U.S.-Indian partnerships.
India should reduce government regulation and liberalize its protectionist trade policies to encourage more foreign investments. A wave of bold reforms on the part of India would do much to strengthen U.S.-Indian economic ties and, in turn, increase India's capacity to meet VWP criteria.
However, while implementation of economic and governance reform might be part of the VWP certification road map, strategic and security needs suggest that the U.S. should not wait for the full effect of these initiatives before making progress on the visa front. In fact, implementation of the VWP may serve as a catalyst for progress on trade and governance issues.
Building Freedom's Alliance
Members of Congress have been hesitant to change the law to expand VWP participation. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, no new country has become eligible for the VWP. This freeze is understandable given the threats of global terrorism and the adverse economic and social impact of individuals living and working in the United States unlawfully. Nevertheless, the imperative to expand the network of free nations that share security and economic concerns argues that the United States must work to enlarge the VWP, not by reducing requirements to "lower the bar," but by working with countries to help them meet the VWP criteria.
A good start would be to consolidate control of visa issuance and monitoring and management of the VWP in a single federal agency, much as the Department of Defense was tasked with leading the effort to prepare states for NATO membership. A joint report by The Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies determined that splitting responsibilities between the two departments detracted from rather than enhanced the efficiency of operations. Since the DHS already has most of the responsibility in these areas, it is the logical place to consolidate responsibility for all visa programs, and Congress should create an Undersecretary for Policy and an Assistant Secretary for International Affairs to oversee these programs.
That done, the United States should work with selected partner nations to establish a certification road map for each country, including a timeline, that will lead to VWP status, much as the Partnership for Peace program was used to prepare some countries for NATO candidacy.
Specifically, Congress should:
For its part, the Administration should:
Ultimately, helping these countries to help themselves will help the United States. Every country that joins global security regimes like the Visa Waiver Program shrinks the number of sanctuaries and opportunities available to terrorists plying the global networks of trade and travel. In addition, expanding global security will promote free trade and the free exchange of people and ideas, both of which strengthen civil societies and make nations more secure.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at The Hudson Institute.
The Visa Waiver Program was established under Section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and made permanent by the Visa Waiver Permanent Program Act (Public Law 106-396) in October 2000.
Public Law 107-296.
Jerry Seper, "Stolen Passports Used at U.S. Borders," The Washington Times, December 24, 2004.
Chris Jagger, "Permission to Land?" The Independent, January 6, 2005.
The highest number of VWP entrants (17.7 million) was in fiscal year 2000, before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, a worldwide recession, and other developments caused an abrupt decline in international travel. Alison Siskin, "Visa Waiver Program," Congressional Research Service Report to Congress, December 20, 2004, pp. i and 4.
"The implications for U.S. national security of eliminating the Visa Waiver Program are difficult to determine. It is clear, however, that eliminating the program could affect U.S. relations with other countries, U.S. tourism, and State Department resources abroad." U.S. General Accounting Office, Border Security: Implications of Eliminating the Visa Waiver Program, GAO-03-38, November 2002, p. 2, at www.gao.gov/new.items/d0338.pdf (April 27, 2005).
Public Law 107-56.
The governments of Andorra, Brunei, Liechtenstein, and Slovenia never requested an extension because almost all of their citizens already possessed machine-readable passports. Belgian nationals have been required to present machine-readable passports since May 15, 2003, after U.S. authorities had detected widespread loss and theft of Belgium's non-machine-readable travel documents.
Public Law 107-173.
Vivienne Parry, "Tell Me Something I Don't Know: Vivienne Parry Chooses 10 Scientific Discoveries We Should Have Made by the End of 2005," The Guardian, January 13, 2005.
Tom Ridge, "The International Dimensions of Homeland Security," remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., January 12, 2005.
Public Law 108-299.
For a review of these efforts, see Magnus Bennett, "European Nations Move to Introduce Biometric Passports, Documents in '05," Homeland Security & Defense, January 5, 2005.
Thomas Frank, "New U.S. Passport Rules: Europe Lags in Meeting Deadline," Newsday, November 26, 2004. See also transcript of press conference, Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson and European Union Director-General Jonathan Faull, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, November 19, 2004, at www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=4153 (April 29, 2005).
Previous plans to include an iris scan have been suspended.
Eileen Sullivan, "Requirements Set for More Secure Visas, Passports," Federal Times, November 1, 2004. Biometric visas permit both one-to-one matches, which verify that the person presenting the visa is the person to whom it was issued, and one-to-many matches, which ensure that the bearer is not the subject of a biometric lookout or enrolled in the system under another name.
For more on visa issuance and monitoring, see James Jay Carafano and Ha Nguyen, "Better Intelligence Sharing for Visa Issuance and Monitoring: An Imperative for Homeland Security" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1699, October 27, 2003, at www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandDefense/BG1699.cfm.
Clark Kent Ervin, Inspector General, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, testimony before the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives, June 23, 2004, in Embassy of the United States, Dublin, Ireland, "Stolen Passports a Serious Concern for Visa Waiver Program," at dublin.usembassy.gov/ireland/stolen_passports.html (April 27, 2005).
For example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service detected a tenfold increase in the price of Slovenian passports after Slovenia became a VWP country in September 1997. Robert L. Ashbaugh, Acting Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, prepared statement in hearings, The Visa Waiver Pilot Program, Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, 106th Cong., 2nd Sess., February 10, 2000, p. 30.
U.S. General Accounting Office, Border Security: Implications of Eliminating the Visa Waiver Program, p. 25.
Robert S. Leiken, "Europe's Mujahideen: Where Mass Immigration Meets Global Terrorism," Center for Immigration Studies Backgrounder, April 11, 2005.
George W. Bush, "State of the Union Address," February 2, 2005, at www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/02/20050202-11.html (April 27, 2005).
States News Service, "Santorum Comments on the Polish Visa Waiver Program," November 18, 2004.
Stacy St. Clair and Jack Komperda, "Missed Moments," Daily Herald (Chicago), November 7, 2004, at www.dailyherald. com/special/pathfrompolska/part1.asp (April 27, 2005).
Raphael Minder, "Ashcroft Seeks to Reassure Europe over Border Controls," Financial Times, October 1, 2004.
For example, the main reason for Poland's exclusion from the VWP is that 30 percent of the 100,000 Poles who apply for U.S. entry visas each year are rejected-a rate 10 times higher than that required for VWP participation. State Department officials attribute the high rejection rate to the large number of Poles seeking illegal employment in the United States. The Polish government itself estimates that 70,000 Poles reside in the United States illegally on expired visas. St. Clair and Komperda, "Missed Moments."
In the case of Poland, the Administration has increased consular staff at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw and has established a "pre-screening" program for Poles traveling to the United States. Mark Brzezinski, "How to Let a Coalition Fray; The U.S. Could Be Doing More for Its 'New Europe' Allies," The Washington Post, October 13, 2004, p. A1.
"U.S. Consulate Moving to Expedite Visa Process," JongAng Ilbo (Seoul), Internet version in English, February 2, 2005, FBIS Document KPP20050201000188.
"Visa Consultation Available at Cafe USA," Korea Times, December 11, 2004.
For example, see Derek J. Mitchell, ed., Strategy and Sentiment: South Korean Views of the United States and the U.S.-ROK Alliance (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2004), and Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, "Global Views 2004: Comparing South Korean and American Public Opinion and Foreign Policy," 2004, at www.ccfr.org/ globalviews2004/sub/pdf/Global_Views_2004_US_Korea.pdf (April 27, 2005).
"US Visas Harder to Come By," Korea Times, October 19, 2004.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., and Paul Rosenzweig, "Protecting Privacy and Providing Security: A Case of Sensible Outsourcing," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1810, November 5, 2004, at www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandDefense/ bg1810.cfm.
Choi Soung-ah, "U.S. Envoy 'In-Step' with Korea," The Korea Herald, October 13, 2004.
U.S. officials have taken some steps to ease the burdens of the current visa application process. The two governments established a working group last year to consider ways to lower the visa rejection rate from the current 5 percent to 3 percent or less, which would satisfy an important criterion for VWP participation. "Online Complaints Focus on US Visas," Korea Times, December 15, 2004.
"New Passport System Delayed to Next Year," Korea Times, November 17, 2004.
Khozem Merchant, "Indian Credit Quality at a 10-Year High," Financial Times, October 7, 2004, p. 20.
Marc A. Miles, Edwin J. Feulner, and Mary Anastasia O'Grady, 2004 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 2004), p. 219.
James Jay Carafano and David Heyman, "DHS 2.0: Rethinking the Department of Homeland Security," Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 2, December 13, 2004, p. 15, at www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandDefense/sr02.cfm.
James Jay Carafano, Richard Weitz, and Alane Kochems, "Department of Homeland Security Needs Under Secretary for Policy," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1788, August 17, 2004, at www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandDefense/ bg1788.cfm.