Bush Administration Seeks Reforms for Visa Waiver Program

Key elements of a Bush administration legislative initiative to reform the Visa Waiver Program were outlined in a fact sheet issued by the Department of Homeland Security November 30.

The changes are intended to strengthen security measures with the goal of encouraging additional international allies to join the program, according to a November 28 statement by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Twenty-seven countries - Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom - participate in the program. It allows travelers who possess an e-passport (containing biometric data) or a valid, machine-readable passport issued before October 26 to enter the United States without obtaining a visa.

Chertoff said the proposed reforms, if enacted by Congress, would enhance border security, allow the United State s to continue to be a welcoming country, and help convince international allies that joining the Visa Waiver Program is a realistic goal.

“We envision a secure travel authorization system that will allow us to receive data about travelers from countries before they get on the plane,” he said. “We want to welcome people who are interested in working or traveling in the United States provided they abide by the terms of their admission and, also importantly, provided they don't furnish a security threat.”

Chertoff stressed that “the United States will equally accept the burden of new security measures and will not require citizens of visa waiver countries to adopt measures that we are unwilling to undertake ourselves.”

The full text of Chertoff’s statement is available on the Homeland Security Web site.

For more information on U.S. policies, see Immigration Reform.

Following is the fact sheet

Department of Homeland Security
Fact Sheet: Security Improvements to Visa Waiver Program
Release Date: November 30, 2006

The Administration announced its intention to work with Congress to reform the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) thereby strengthening security and facilitating international allies’ ability to join the program. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified a number of security measures to be sought from Visa Waiver Program candidates. DHS will work with Congress to implement the following security requirements:

1. Electronic travel authorizations. The United States will develop an Electronic Travel Authorization program for VWP travelers to give advance information on their travels to the Unites States. In return, the VWP travelers will be given authorization electronically to travel to the United States. This program will be modeled on a similar program that has been used in Australia for many years.

2. Passenger information exchange. For the most effective background checks on prospective travelers, the United States needs information and assistance from the country where the traveler resides. Such assistance should be a routine part of any VWP relationship.

3. Reporting lost and stolen passports. VWP countries will be asked to report lost and stolen passport data for both blank and issued passports, and to do so as promptly as possible. We have made progress in this area thanks to Congress’ past requirement that VWP countries provide such reports; the time has come to raise our sights.

4. Repatriation of removed aliens. When illegal immigrants are found in the United States, they must be removed from the United States to their home country. The home country must agree to accept them for repatriation. If the country refuses, or simply neglects to do so, the United States is forced to allow the aliens to remain in this country. VWP countries should agree to accept their citizens promptly when those citizens are caught violating U.S. law.

In addition, DHS will seek agreement with VWP countries on the following security enhancements:

5. Common standards for travel documents. International travelers who use fraudulent travel documents remain a security threat to the United States. DHS has made great strides in encouraging foreign nations to adopt common standards for the manufacture and issuance of travel documents – including passports that are machine readable, contain biometric information, contain digitally embedded photographs, and have other security features. But more work remains to be done. DHS will urge VWP candidates to take further steps to improve the security and interoperability of travel documents. Examples of improved security could include:  central issuance authorities, standards for emergency passports, special markings for replacement passports, measures to identify travelers with two or more passports, and expedited issuance of the new biometric electronic passports.

6. Air marshals. The United States benefits from the enhanced security of allowing U.S. Federal Air Marshals to operate onboard international flights to and from the United States. We will ask VWP countries to cooperate in the air marshal program.

7. Airport security.  VWP countries will be encouraged to meet superior standards of airport security, especially in screening checked baggage.

Focus on security with flexibility on immigration measures. Finally, while DHS intends to tighten security measures and seek flexibility on requirements that focus on the risk of illegal migration rather than security. For many countries, the biggest impediment is the statutory requirement that the visa refusal rate for their country fall below 3 percent. Visa refusals are typically a reflection of concern on the part of consular officials that the traveler will not abide by the restrictions of a tourist or other limited visa.