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Don't Waver on Waivers

Richard Weitz

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a comprehensive homeland security bill implementing most of the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 commission. The proposed legislation includes an amendment that would allow for the limited expansion of the visa waiver program in return for all participants’ taking steps to enhance their travel security.

The visa waiver program currently permits the citizens of 27 countries, mostly in Europe and Asia, to enter the U.S. for tourism or business (but not employment or formal study) for as long as 90 days without obtaining a visa.

Members of the House and Senate will now take up the visa waiver program revisions and related issues in a conference session to reconcile their respective homeland security bills. Although Congress is rightly concerned about the implications of relaxing visa entry procedures, the lawmakers should support the proposed changes because they would produce a net gain in America’s security.

Since Congress established the visa waiver program in 1986, it has removed unnecessary travel barriers, encouraged tourism, strengthened relations with friendly nations and saved the government money by allowing State Department consular officers to focus attention on individuals from higher-risk visa applicant countries.

Despite the visa waiver program’s numerous benefits, its detractors worry that it presents a major security risk because terrorists could use its procedures to enter the United States with less-extensive screening than is required of visa applicants. The visa waiver program also has had mixed effects on U.S. relations with other countries. Although the program has strengthened tourism and commercial ties between the U.S. and visa waiver program members, the program has become a major source of irritation for many countries deemed ineligible.

To make the visa waiver program more effective, the Senate bill would require existing and new participants to adopt enhanced travel security procedures – including policies to limit illegal entry into the United States and to impede travel by terrorists and transnational criminals. The legislation would also condition visa waiver program participation on the executive branch’s certification that each new participating nation does not pose a security, immigration or law enforcement concern to the U.S.

Under the proposed legislation, security requirements for participation would include using biometric passports, enhancing passenger screening through an e-travel authorization system, improving passenger information exchanges, promptly reporting lost or stolen passports, strengthening airport and baggage security, and pledging to repatriate any visitors who violate U.S. laws. Any country that failed to uphold these standards could lose its visa waiver program eligibility.

The proposed Senate legislation would also require the Department of Homeland Security to improve its procedures for monitoring how long individuals visiting under the visa waiver program stay in the country, a source of frequent complaints by members of Congress.

Enactment of the bill would help achieve the administration’s vision of an America with “secure borders, open doors.” In addition, the executive and legislative branches should reduce visa-related tensions with foreign nations excluded from the program by expanding opportunities for their citizens to obtain visas while they await their countries’ possible incorporation into the visa waiver program. To this end, U.S. officials could establish additional bilateral review groups to work with foreign governments to pursue mutually beneficial measures.

Depending on the foreign partner in question, these steps could include initiatives to lower visa rejection rates, reduce visa overstays, permit greater use of original-language supporting documents, increase the number of U.S. consular officers stationed in foreign localities, assist host governments to produce more-secure travel documents, and expand the use of prescreening techniques that would allow visa applicants to better assess their prospects before submitting formal applications and the nonrefundable $100 processing fee.

One simple fix would be for Congress to relax its 2004 law requiring interviews of almost all applicants for nonimmigrant visas. This provision often requires visa applicants to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest U.S. consular office. Members should create a “trusted traveler” program for frequent visitors, allowing them to submit their visa applications online or by mail if they have recently undergone comprehensive screening to receive a visa.

Keeping terrorists out of the United States is very important, but needlessly antagonizing foreign nations in the process can be self-defeating.

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