Protecting America and
promoting economic growth and freedom require international
partnerships that serve mutual interests. The Visa Waiver
Program (VWP) is one example. The VWP enhances security by setting
common standards and promotes economic growth and cultural ties.
Congress should use the VWP more effectively by giving the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) broader authority to expand
the program to other countries.
The Visa Waiver
Program. Established in 1986 to
promote better relations with U.S. allies and to allow the
Department of State to focus consular resources on other areas, the
VWP allows nationals from selected countries to travel to the
United States for tourism or business without a visa for up to 90
days. 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. To participate in the VWP, a country must
visa-free travel to U.S. citizens;
Have a visa refusal
rate of less than 3 percent (i.e., less that 3 percent of
non-immigrant U.S. visa applications by its nationals are
countries participate in the VWP. By law, the DHS and State
Department jointly review each participating country's status every
two years. Countries can be removed from the program, as Argentina
was in February 2002 after an economic crisis led a high
percentage of its nationals to overstay the 90-day
Benefits. The VWP is a means of
creating 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
In a significant
policy move, Congress mandated in 2002 that all VWP participants
must have biometric passports. While a machine-readable
passport allows agents to verify only a traveler's name, documents
containing biometric data allow verification of a person's
identity. This will allow U.S. Customs and law enforcement to track
suspected terrorists from VWP countries.
Problem. U.S. allies are eager
to be admitted to the VWP for both the economic benefits and
the symbolic most-favored-nation status. However, although this
criterion makes sense, many U.S. allies struggle to meet the third
requirement because control lies in the hands of American
consular officers who must subjectively decide in a matter of
seconds whether or not an applicant deserves a visa. Since
September 11, 2001, consular officers have rightly shown an
abundance of caution. No one wants to admit the next "9/11"
terrorist into America.
Still, this problem
needs to be solved. It has created a perception of unfairness and
double standards, causing resentment toward the United States. The
Poles see that they cannot travel freely to the United States even
though Poland sent several thousand troops to Iraq to support
the U.S. effort, while the French and Germans, whose governments
condemned the war, can travel freely.
In the past
year, various Members of Congress have introduced legislation to
admit Poland and South Korea and other U.S. allies to the VWP, but
with no results. Remedying this situation for the sake of homeland
security requires a more permanent, decisive action-a change in the
visa waiver law.
should consider legislation that allows the Secretary of Homeland
Security to waive the 3 percent requirement for a country that
meets five criteria:
The country is of
significant geostrategic importance to U.S. security and
The country proposes
measures to assist the United States in combating terrorist and
transnational criminal travel.
The country is working
with other regional partners and the United States on
international travel issues related to security and
The country produces a
road map demonstrating a good-faith effort to reduce overstays
by its nationals in the United States.
passports meet congressionally mandated biometric
Each waiver should
last for 10 years to allow the country to reduce its overstay rates
to acceptable levels. Congress should not authorize any
extensions, and it should require the DHS to revoke the waiver
if the country fails to implement the five-point plan. These
requirements will demonstrate to other countries that the United
States is serious.
Countries. Based on these
criteria, six countries could immediately be granted VWP waivers:
South Korea, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Slovak
Republic, and India. All of them are proven friends in the war on
terrorism. They also have young, vibrant, growing market economies
that are an important part of the rapidly growing global economy
that is benefiting both developing and developed democratic
nations. Their youth populations want to come to the United States
to visit Niagara Falls and get business training, not to settle.
Admitting such nations to the VWP now would make America safer and
promote economic growth and freedom.
Amending the VWP
law to allow for exceptions that help U.S. national security makes
sense. On a general level, the Visa Waiver Program is an important
means of facilitating friendlier relations with other countries by
promoting travel, trade, and the exchange of ideas. On a more
strategic level, it is a tool for building partnerships that
bolster homeland security, and it should be utilized to its
fullest extent. Congress should act now by authorizing the
Department of Homeland Security to grant temporary waivers to
countries that meet the five criteria.
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. Melanie Youell contributed writing
and research to this article.