June 12, 2009 | Backgrounder on Homeland Security
Congress established the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in 1986 to strengthen the United States' relationship with key allies around the globe and it has become an invaluable program for advancing U.S. interests. The VWP:
In addition, reforms in recent years have made the program a better tool for thwarting terrorist and criminal travel as well as combating violations of U.S. immigration laws (while enhancing safeguards of individual privacy and improving the convenience of international travel). Unless Congress acts now, however, the window of opportunity to expand this program to include vital friends and allies around the world will close.
By instituting additional measures Congress can re-establish the momentum achieved in the past few years in restructuring and vastly improving the VWP. These additional measures are based on rigorous analysis of lessons learned from the past few years by a non-partisan, independent task force of scholars, researchers, and former government officials. Their review and recommendations for the next steps in the VWP are based on an evaluation of current and future threats, an assessment of ongoing government programs, and an analysis of trends in trade and international travel. The critical necessary steps the task force identified are:
These steps are vital for enhancing the security of the United States and its international partners, spurring economic growth, improving protection of individual rights and privacy, and burnishing America's reputation as a welcoming and confident member of the community of free nations that embraces engagement between its citizens and those of its friends and allies around the world.
A Valuable Tool
The VWP was created in 1986 to develop America's relationship with its allies. The program allows foreign travelers from member countries to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. The purpose of the VWP is not just to allow easier travel for foreign visitors. VWP adds security and encourages economic growth, while developing America's image around the world.
Security. After 9/11, Congress grew concerned that terrorists from member nations--for example, "shoe bomber" Richard Reid (a French citizen) and the 2007 Heathrow plotters (citizens of the U.K.)-- might exploit the VWP and travel to the United States without any advance scrutiny. In 2007, Congress and the Bush Administration enacted legislation adding a number of new security requirements to the program:
The Visa Waiver Program is a security partnership. Member countries agree to common standards and policies, such as limiting the entry of illegal visitors and hindering the travel of terrorists and criminals. Countries that interfere with U.S. security interests may not be admitted. Once a country joins the VWP, lifetime membership is not guaranteed. A country can be evicted from the program if the statutory membership requirements are no longer met or if major security concerns arise. This option was exercised in 2001 when Argentina's membership was revoked in the wake of the country's economic collapse.
Diplomacy and Cooperation. The VWP generates important public diplomacy benefits. First, member countries see membership in the VWP as a sign of trust by the United States. Imparting trust to allies makes them more likely to work with the U.S. on particular policies or actions. While negotiating VWP membership with the Czech Republic, for instance, the two countries signed an agreement on a U.S. missile shield site on Czech soil.
Second, when foreign travelers come to America and interact with Americans and gain an understanding of what makes America great, they share these positive experiences with members of their own societies--helping to improve America's image abroad. The United States Travel Association, through a survey conducted by the Discover America Partnership, estimatesthat 74 percent of those who have visited the United States are more likely to have a favorable opinion of America and support U.S. policies. This type of "people-to-people diplomacy," as former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes phrases it, should not be underestimated.
Economic Benefits and Cost Savings. The VWP generates tremendous economic benefits for the United States. When foreign travelers come to America, they rent cars and hotel rooms, dine in restaurants, and shop in stores--purchases that contribute to the U.S. economy. In fact, foreign tourists often spend three times that of domestic travelers. In 2008, foreign travelers spent more than $100 billion in the United States. The VWP accounts for $48 billion of this spending. The recent economic downturn has devastated the tourism and retail sectors. Given the need to stimulate the economy, America should be encouraging legitimate travelers from around the world to come to the United States.
Not only do the taxes generated from this tourism produce as much as $115 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments, the VWP also saves the U.S. government millions of dollars in administrative costs at consulate offices. Without the VWP, all foreign travelers would have to visit a consulate abroad and obtain a visa before traveling to the United States. The GAO estimated that the State Department would incur additional expenses of $522 million to $810 million a year to process the additional visa requests.
Finally, membership in VWP requires that the member country provide reciprocal visa waiver benefits to U.S. citizens. Taking VWP membership away from countries could cause them to retaliate in kind. Americans then might have to pay a visa fee of around $100 for each country visited.
The History of the Visa Waiver Program
When the VWP was created in 1986 it was created as a means of reducing consular workload, focusing consular resources on high risk individuals, and facilitating tourism and business interactions between the U.S. and other nations. Japan and the United Kingdom were the first two countries to join the program. The main requirements for VWP membership include:
Until recently, the VWP had 27 members, largely from Western
Europe. According to preliminary Commerce
Department data, in 2008 the U.S. had more than 16 million arrivals
from these Visa Waiver countries. But between 1999 and 2008,
the program was not expanded at all.
Click to view PDF of chart
After 9/11, Congress began to re-evaluate the policies and procedures that made up America's immigration and security structures, looking for potential terrorist loopholes. Congress identified the VWP as a program that could be exploited by terrorists to enter the U.S. illegally. As a result, Congress in 2007 enacted legislation that made sweeping changes to the VWP statute. In addition to the new security measures discussed above, the mandate included the following provisions:
The waiver authority granted to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is contingent on DHS being able to implement these requirements. To date, DHS has certified that it has met all requirements except for the development of a biometric air exit system. As a result, the Secretary will lose the ability to use the waiver authority to admit new countries on July 1, 2009.
In December of 2008, the Bush Administration exercised its powers under the new legislation to admit eight new countries to the program--the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, and South Korea. Total VWP membership now stands at 35.
The VWP received tremendous support in Congress from both sides of the aisle. President Obama's White House Chief of Staff and former congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) was a primary sponsor of the VWP, enabling legislation during his time in Congress. The program was also championed by Republicans Senator George Voinovich (OH) and Representative John Shimkus (IL), and Democrats Representative Robert Wexler (FL) and Senator Barbara Mikulski (MD).
Principles of VWP Success
Given the benefits of the Visa Waiver Program, the U.S. should ensure that current legislation before Congress does not halt the program. Future actions should be based on principles that have made the VWP successful, including:
The Right Strategy for VWP: What Congress Should Do
The future of the VWP rests largely with Congress. Congress should look for ways to further strengthen and expand the VWP while ensuring that the program's benefits are not exploited by terrorists and criminals. This can be accomplished by the following:
Congress can minimize these concerns by providing better oversight of the process. The goal should be to ensure that the expansion process is 1) based on milestones, not bloated expectations, 2) includes standard operating procedures and security needs, and 3) with the ultimate goal of expansion to friends and allies around the globe.
The Future of VWP
Congress is right to place the security of Americans at the forefront of America's immigration policies--but its policies can and should also promote freedom and prosperity. Compromising one good for the sake of another is not sustainable, and it is not necessary. Congress can feel proud that VWP accomplishes all three of these goals--security, freedom, and prosperity--and should take steps to ensure the program's longevity and success.
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, at The Heritage Foundation; Nathan Alexander Sales is Assistant Professor at Law at George Mason University School of Law, and formerly served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Policy Development at the Department of Homeland Security; James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of Heritage's 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.
George V. Voinovich, "Visa Waiver Reform: Time for Action," Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 1032, June 18, 2007, at http://www.heritage.org/research/nationalsecurity/hl1032.cfm.
U.S. Department of State, "Visa Waiver Program," at http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/without/without_1990.html (April 27, 2009).
Jena Baker McNeill, "Electronic Travel Authorization: Important for Safer and More Secure Overseas Travel," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1964, June 19, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandSecurity/wm1964.cfm.
U.S. Government Accountability Office, Visa Waiver Program: Actions are Needed to Improve Management of the Expansion Process, and to Assess and Mitigate Program Risks, GAO-08-967, September 15, 2008,at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-967, p. 14.
James Jay Carafano, "Road Maps for Visa Waiver Program Lead Nowhere," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 993, February 17, 2006, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandSecurity/em993.cfm.
Alison Siskin, "Visa Waiver Program," Congressional Research Service Report to Congress, April 6, 2004, p. 2, at /static/reportimages/291E3A703A46632BB0F4F860936B91C8.pdf (April 29, 2009).
Jena Baker McNeill, James Jay Carafano, and James Dean, "Strengthening the Visa Waiver Program: A Memo to President-elect Obama," Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 30, December 8, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/research/immigration/sr0030.cfm.
Judy Dempsey and Dan Bilefsky, "U.S. and Czech Republic Sign Agreement on Missile Shield," International Herald Tribune, July 8, 2008, at http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/07/08/europe/shield.php (February 10, 2009).
Discover America Partnership, "A Blueprint to
Discover America," January 31, 2007, p. 7, at
Blueprint_to_Discover_America.pdf (May 27, 2009).
U.S. Government Accountability Office, "Border Security: Implications of Eliminating the Visa Waiver Program," p. 4.
U.S. Department of State, "Fees for Visa Services," updated March 5, 2009, at http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/types/types_1263.html (March 5, 2009).
Ibid.; U.S. Department of State, "Calculation of the Adjusted Visa Refusal Rate for Tourists and Business Travelers Under the Guidelines of the Visa Waiver Program," Fact Sheet, /static/reportimages/A9A580757995D66FE07B2EB04C317139.pdf (March 1, 2009): "Under U.S. immigration law, a visa must be denied if the applicant cannot establish his or her eligibility, either because the application does not meet the requirements of an established visa category, or because there are grounds for ineligibility based on other aspects of the visa case. A visa refusal is the formal denial of a nonimmigrant visa application by a U.S. consular officer acting pursuant to the immigration and Nationality Act."
Ibid., p. 8.
Press release, "European Commission Authorized to Open Negotiations with the U.S. on Conditions for Access to the US Visa Waiver Program," European Union, April 18, 2008, at http://www.eurunion.org/eu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1730&Itemid=58 (April 29, 2009).
U.S. Department of State, "Deadline Nears for Machine Readable Passports," July 2003, at http://travel.state.gov/visa/laws/telegrams/telegrams_1535.html (February 27, 2009).
Carafano, "Road Maps for Visa Waiver Program Lead Nowhere."
Public Law 110-53, Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act, 110th Congress, at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_cong_public_laws&docid=f:publ053.110 (March 2, 2009).
Carafano, "Road Maps for Visa Waiver Program Lead Nowhere."
J. Scott Trubey, "Delta Balks at Plan to Screen Foreign Passengers," Atlanta Business Chronicle, July 11, 2008, at http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/stories/2008/07/14/story8.html (March 1, 2009). As a result, several airlines have filed suit against DHS in order to have the court sort out who should take the lead.
U.S. Department of State, "Visa Waiver Program," at http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/without/without_1990.html (April 29, 2009).
Chris Strohm, "Senators Urge Chertoff to Strengthen Visa Waiver Program," GovernmentExecutive.com, September 19, 2006, at http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0906/091906cdam1.htm (April 29, 2009).
U.S. Government Accountability Office, Visa Waiver Program: Actions are Needed to Improve Management of the Expansion Process, and to Assess and Mitigate Program Risks, p. 14.