December 8, 2008 | Special Report on Immigration
We should work to include countries like Poland that are members of both the EU and NATO into the Visa Waiver Program. Today's visa regime reflects neither the current strategic relationship nor the close historic bonds between our peoples, and is out of date.
--Barack Obama, statement on visit of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, July 16, 2007
President-elect Obama, your comments on the Senate floor regarding the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) demonstrate that you recognize the program's substantial public diplomacy benefits. The VWP has undergone tremendous changes since its inception and remains a vital tool for improving America's image around the globe. Countries such as Bulgaria, for example, have commented that membership is considered a clear sign of America's trust.
The VWP was created with bipartisan support, and this support has led to the program's success. As a member of the House, your incoming White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), sponsored the legislation with the aid of Representatives Robert Wexler (D-FL) and John Shimkus (R-IL). During the visit of the Polish President to the United States, Representative Emanuel emphasized the importance of "modernizing the Visa Waiver Program to provide our closest international partners the opportunity to travel to the United States while simultaneously strengthening our security." On the Senate side, the legislation was sponsored by Senators George Voinovich (R-OH) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).
The VWP is not only a major public diplomacy asset; it also adds to our security and enhances law enforcement and crime-fighting efforts through data-sharing agreements between member countries. The program helps to bring tourism dollars to the United States and ensures that we know more about the people entering America prior to their arrival on U.S. soil.
Legislation, including the 9/11 Implementation Bill of 2007, has made fundamental security-related changes in the Visa Waiver Program. Several of these changes have been implemented, including the deployment of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), but a few remain as challenges to the new Administration. As you rightly note, your Administration will still have work to do to ensure that the benefits of the VWP and the security of Americans are maintained.
Ensuring the continuation of the Visa Waiver Program will require a serious commitment from the new Administration. Specific changes that would strengthen the program include the following:
Opponents in Congress claim that the Visa Waiver Program is a security and immigration loophole, but the evidence simply does not support this view. For example, much is said about the visa overstay rates of member countries. But analysis by DHS indicates that the overstay rates of these countries are significantly lower than expected, do not represent a threat to our security, and do not add to the nation's illegal immigration problem.
You and your Administration should continue to work with Congress on this very important issue, continue to emphasize the tangible benefits of the Visa Waiver Program, and--most important--work to dispel the myths associated with the VWP.
Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for 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; James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Davis Institute and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Allison Center; and James Dean is Deputy Director, Foreign, Defense, Trade, and Homeland Security Policy, in the Government Relations Department at The Heritage Foundation.
Press release, "Obama Statement on Visit of Polish President Lech
Kaczynski," July 16, 2007, at http://obama.senate.gov/press/070716-
 Press release, "Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Republic of Bulgaria Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev at Visa Waiver Program Interim Declaration Signing," U.S. Department of Homeland Security, June 17, 2008, at http://www.dhs.gov/xnews/releases/pr_1213734732755.shtm.
Press release, "Emanuel Welcomes the President of Poland to the
United States," July 16, 2007, at http://www.house.gov/apps/list/spe