Panelists See Need for Change in U.S. Visa Process

By Kate Ericsson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - U.S. visa policies can and should be improved, concluded a group of experts – including an official in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – during a recent discussion at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

During the July 24 panel titled “Rethinking Visa Policy for the 21st Century,” Stewart A. Baker, assistant secretary for policy at DHS, acknowledged that it could be difficult to obtain a U.S. visa. He said this raises questions about ways of streamlining the process to make it more efficient and “a lot less hassle for people.”

Another panelist, James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow on defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, emphasized how important it is for the United States to have a visa policy that promotes economic growth, builds strong alliances and contributes to the safety and security of the nation.  He also stressed how important and personal the visa application process is for people who want to visit the United States. 

Currently, 27 countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows people traveling to the United States for tourism or business to stay for up to 90 days without a visa. In addition to the 27 – mostly from Western Europe but including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Brunei and Slovenia - there are more than a dozen so-called VWP Roadmap Countries that have expressed interest.  According to Baker, the VWP Roadmap Countries are Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and South Korea.

To participate in VWP countries have to meet certain criteria concerning their immigration patterns, security, law enforcement and others. The visitors from VWP countries must have passports that are machine-readable and – depending on when the passport was issued – may have to meet certain other requirements.

“The last countries to join the VWP joined in 1999,” said Baker.  “Since September 11 [2001, when the United States was attacked by terrorists], no one has been added to the program, in part because of concerns about the security implications of adding to the VWP.”  He said the United States is examining whether changes to the program should be made and whether it should be expanded, but he did not elaborate.

Carafano and another panelist, Dan Griswold, director of the Center for Trade and Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, said the Visa Waiver Program should be expanded. They said an expansion would enhance U.S. relations with other countries. 

“I think the VWP has been a great success,” said Griswold.  He said the U.S. government should "be exploring prudent ways" to expand the program.  The Roadmap Countries do not present an additional security risk to the United States, he said.

“It’s hard to see a dividing line between those countries and the 27 countries already in the program, other than the matter of timing,” Griswold said.

Carafano suggested that expanding the Visa Waiver Program “to countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, where the United States has growing economic, cultural, and security ties could both strengthen America’s bonds to these nations and enhance security.” 

Security would be enhanced, he claimed, because VWP countries “must maintain the same security standards as the United States.” Furthermore, “increased participation in VWP allows the Department of State and DHS to focus their assets on travelers from nations of greater concern,” Carafano added.

“Unfortunately, I am cautiously pessimistic that Congress will do anything,” said Griswold.  “The House seems to be in the mood to build walls rather than take them down.”

“We will have to wait for a more opportune moment to expand the Visa Waiver Program,” he predicted.

The Heritage Foundation is a conservative policy research institution.

Additional information on the Visa Waiver Program is available on the State Department Web site.