April 12, 2012 | Issue Brief on Immigration
Member expansion is not the only thing that is on hold when it comes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Since 2007, VWP partner nations have been required to enter into three information-sharing agreements with the United States as a stipulation of membership. Through these agreements, member nations share data with the U.S. on known or suspected terrorists and other criminals, as well as information on lost or stolen passports. Yet as of March 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that only approximately half of the 36 member countries had fully complied.
It has now been nearly five years since the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 was passed requiring all current and future VWP members to enter into information-sharing agreements with the U.S. The period for timely compliance has clearly come and gone. It is time for DHS to make VWP partner nations understand that these information-sharing agreements are a central tenet of the program and mandatory for continued membership.
The Visa Waiver Program
Begun in 1986, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens from member nations to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa. Visitors who wish to enter through the program must first complete an application through the online Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Through ESTA, potential travelers are screened to ensure that they do not pose a security risk to the United States. Once vetted and approved, travelers are then made eligible for visa-free travel to the United States for a period of two years.
To gain membership in the program under the current requirements, a nation must:
Presently, 36 nations are members of the Visa Waiver Program. Between 2005 and 2010, 98 million visitors entered the United States from these countries through the VWP. During their stays, these individuals visited American shops, hotels, and restaurants, infusing money directly into the U.S. economy. In fiscal year 2008, VWP visitors spent an estimated $100 billion here. These benefits only continue once a traveler returns home with positive memories of the U.S., helping to improve America’s image abroad.
A Critical Counterterrorism Tool
Of course, the Visa Waiver Program offers more than just economic and public diplomacy benefits to the United States. Since September 11, measures have been taken to modernize the program and enhance related security measures.
In addition to pre-screening applicants through ESTA to ensure that potential travelers do not pose a security risk to the United States, all current and future members are now required to sign a series of information-sharing agreements with the United States.
With the passage of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, Congress required that all current and future VWP member nations share information with the United States regarding individuals traveling to the U.S. who could pose a security threat. To satisfy this requirement, DHS requires that member nations enter into the following agreements:
Consequences of Continued Non-Compliance
Last year, DHS indicated that it had developed a compliance schedule for finalizing the last of the information-sharing agreements with VWP member nations by June 2012. Now, two months out from this deadline, it seems highly unlikely that this goal will be met.
Nearly five years since the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 was passed—calling on VWP member nations to sign these information-sharing agreements with the U.S.—many of the remaining nations continue to resist on the basis of broad political or restrictive privacy concerns. It is time, however, that the Department of Homeland Security make the consequences of continued non-compliance clear, up to and including expulsion from the program.
While federal officials have indicated that termination of program membership would be less than desirable, the importance of achieving full compliance for U.S. security must not be ignored. The period for timely compliance has clearly come and gone; it is time that DHS make it clear that continued non-compliance is not an option.
Jessica Zuckerman is a Research Associate 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.