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peoples, and is out of date.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
- Make ESTA more user-friendly. As of January
2009, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization--the online
system that travelers will be required to go through in order to
travel under the Visa Waiver Program from a member country--will be
mandatory for all travelers. This is in accordance with the 9/11
Implementation Bill, which required that ESTA be fully operational
before countries were allowed into the VWP. While the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) has met this goal, it is vital that the new
Administration continue to look for ways to make ESTA more
user-friendly. ESTA travel is an added security benefit for the
United States because we know more about the travelers coming into
the U.S. before they even depart their home country. And ESTA could
prevent someone seeking to do harm to the U.S. from ever reaching
One way ESTA could be made more user-friendly would be to offer it
in multiple languages. Your Administration will also need to ensure
that we are using good datasets and that we have an appeals process
for people who may be wrongfully denied in order to determine the
reason behind their denial.
- Continue an open dialogue with "roadmap"
countries. Congress was very critical of the Bush
Administration because of the perceived notion that the
Administration was negotiating with countries before they had met
Visa Waiver Program requirements. There is nothing wrong with
speaking to countries that seem close to meeting VWP requirements
and heading them down the path toward membership. Designating
countries as "roadmap" countries provides a clear metric for
membership in the VWP, and working with them throughout the process
gives them a sense of transparency and a clear set of goals. This
is especially helpful to our allies, who may see delay in
membership as a sign of distrust.
DHS has identified several of our allies--including Bulgaria,
Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Croatia, Taiwan, Poland, and Romania--as
"roadmap" countries that have indicated an interest in the VWP and
that are on course to meet program requirements within the short
term. Your Administration should continue the dialogue with these
countries as they move closer to meeting program requirements. It
is also important to begin thinking now about identifying
additional partner countries that could be set on-course for VWP
membership, including Chile, Panama, and other partners.
- Reconsider the current exit requirement. The
United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology
(US-VISIT) program is intended to record foreign visitors and
workers leaving the country. But US-VISIT has yet to be fully
implemented. This implementation, by law, is a requirement of the
Visa Waiver Program, and there is currently a June 2009 deadline
for DHS to institute this system using biometric data; otherwise,
DHS will lose its authority to grant waivers for countries to join
the VWP, even if they fulfill all of the required bilateral
DHS is not likely to meet this goal because it has found it
particularly expensive and difficult to determine how to put the
system in place at U.S. land borders with points of exit scattered
over thousands of miles where hundreds of millions enter each year.
Despite these challenges and costs, having an exit system is
worthwhile, but changes may be needed in order to implement a
workable solution. One option may be for DHS to establish voluntary
checkout stations or processes for certain visa categories.
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
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.
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.