October 21, 2008 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security
In a White House Rose Garden ceremony on October 17, President Bush announced that seven countries had met the requirements for admission into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Within a month citizens from those countries will be allowed to travel to the United States for tourism and business without having to first obtain a visa. The program also adds new security guarantees to combat terrorist and criminal travel as well as deterring "overstays" (persons remaining in the U.S. unlawfully).
This announcement is a positive step for visa reform. No countries have been admitted to the VWP since 9/11. Adding security while facilitating travel has proven to be a winning formula. Congress should now build on the successes of VWP reform.
Security and Freedom of Travel
The VWP allows individuals from approved member countries to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. Initially, only countries with visa refusal rates under 3 percent were permitted membership. In 2007, however, Congress modified the requirement, allowing countries whose rates were under 10 percent, given certain security benchmarks were met. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was required to declare the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) fully operational. ETSA is an online system that allows for the pre-clearance of travelers planning to come to the United States, ensuring travelers qualify under VWP before they board the plane. While currently voluntary, as of January 2009, ESTA will be mandatory for all participants in the VWP.
Additionally, by law DHS had to ensure that there is a system to verify the departure of not less than 97 percent of foreign nationals who entered the country through U.S. airports. There have been laws on the books since 1996 requiring government to track the exit of visitors to the United States, but an effective system has never been implemented-until now. As a result of the VWP reforms, DHS is implementing the first ever real-time exit system as part of the US-VISIT program.
Finally, in adding new countries to the VWP, DHS added a host of important bilateral security agreements, including effective sharing of lost and stolen passport information. These cooperative agreements actually provide more security enhancements than the process of formally issuing visas.
The recent announcement by President Bush included seven countries: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuanian, Slovakia, and South Korea. DHS has also identified several "roadmap" countries that have indicated interest in the VWP and whose visa refusal rejections are on course to meet program requirements within the short-term, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland, and Romania.
These countries see admission into the VWP as a clear sign of trust. And this trust has led to positive benefits in the United States, as DHS has used the VWP to assist in law enforcement and crime-fighting efforts, catching criminals attempting to flee to other countries. Finally, coupled with ESTA, the VWP is a boon for security. ESTA ensures that we know more about the people coming into the United States prior to entry on U.S. soil-deterring those who want to harm Americans. In order to continue this progress, Congress and DHS should:
A Useful Tool
Through VWP reform America now has a tool for managing international travel that will help keep this nation free, safe, and prosperous. It is now up to the Congress to ensure the resources and the legislative mandate to build on the success of VWP reform.
Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security and 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 and Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and at The Heritage Foundation.