Officials Urge Congress To Modernize, Expand Visa Waiver Program

By Jeffrey Thomas
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Delaying modernization of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) would have adverse security consequences for the United States, officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State told Congress May 24.

The modernization proposed by the Bush administration would require such innovations as electronic registration of VWP travelers, as well as more data sharing and better reporting of lost and stolen passports. These changes would be applied first to travelers from countries newly certified for the program, but eventually would be extended to current qualifying nations as well. The changes would strengthen U.S. security, the officials said.

The Visa Waiver Program currently allows nationals of 27 countries to travel to the United States without visas for business or pleasure for up to 90 days. Approximately 15 million people travel to the United States under the program annually, according to the State Department’s Stephen Edson, who testified at the May 24 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe. President Bush declared his support for expanding the VWP during the NATO Summit in Latvia in November 2006.

For a nation to participate in the Visa Waiver Program, the refusal rate for nonimmigrant visas sought by its citizens cannot exceed 3 percent, which means that at least 97 percent of those who apply for a nonimmigrant visa must be deemed eligible by a U.S. consular officer. Furthermore, the particular country’s participation must not undermine U.S. security, law enforcement and immigration interests. Currently, 27 countries are in the Visa Waiver Program: 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.

The Bush administration has proposed seven new security measures as part of a modernization of the VWP that would shifts its focus from economic migration to the threat of international terrorism. (See related article.)

In the U.S. Congress, there are differing proposals in the House and Senate to revise the program.

Nathan Sales, a policy officer for the Department of Homeland Security, refused to single out one bill as preferred by the Bush administration. He said, however, that the administration needs flexibility on the visa refusal rate requirement. “The administration would prefer for Congress to give us complete flexibility on the visa refusal rate requirement, rather than simply raise it from 3 percent to a marginally higher level,” Sales said.

Of the seven new security measures being proposed by the administration, four would be mandatory.

The mandatory measures include (1) an Electronic Travel Authorization requiring VWP travelers to register online in advance of travel; (2) more robust data-sharing efforts; (3) timely reporting of lost and stolen passports, whether blank or already issued; and (4) guarantees to repatriate nationals ordered removed from the United States.

The three additional measures focus on airport security standards, air marshals programs and common standards for travel documents.

Although the new security measures would be applied to new Visa Waiver Program nations first, Sales said, “in several years we intend to extend them to current VWP countries as well. We have no interest in running a two-tiered VWP. The same security standards should all apply to all member countries regardless of when they were admitted to the program.”

Edson told Congress the proposed legislation would lead to more secure U.S. borders and strengthen ties with the 13 governments - many of them European - currently seeking to meet the criteria for VWP membership.

The debate over comprehensive immigration reform complicates modernization of the Visa Waiver Program. The top Republican on the House Europe Subcommittee, Elton Gallegly, a representative from California, said during the House hearing he “can’t support any expansion of the Visa Waiver Program, unless it is a part of a comprehensive immigration reform package that includes provisions that will secure our borders.”

“This must include the implementation of an entry/exit system so we can determine if all foreign visitors - including Visa Waiver travelers - leave the United States in compliance with their visa terms,” Gallegly added.

The Department of Homeland Security hopes to achieve “within six months to a year” a reliable data-matching program that is key to implementing an entry/exit system, Sales said.

The fate of the complex immigration reform agreement reached May 17 between President Bush and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators remains unclear, however. (See related article.)

For more information on U.S. policy, see Visas and Immigration.