Expand Visa Waiver Program to Qualified Countries

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Driven by legitimate but misdirected concerns about radicalIslamic terrorism, current U.S. visa policy is discouraginghundreds of thousands of peaceful and well-meaning people fromvisiting the United States for business and pleasure--costing ourcountry lost economic opportunities totaling millions of dollarsand the goodwill of millions of people.

For most people outside the United States, the U.S. governmentrequires that they obtain a visa before entering our country. Butfor residents of Canada and 27 other countries in the Visa WaiverProgram, no visa is required for tourism or business visits offewer than 90 days. The 27 countries include most countries ofWestern Europe, and Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, andBrunei.[1]Another group of countries would like to join the list, but not asingle country has been added since the terrorist attacks ofSeptember 11, 2001.

During a recent stop in Tallin, Estonia, President Bush calledon Congress to extend the VWP to several more countries beyond the27 already participating.[2] Congress and the Bush administration shouldconsider a prudent expansion of the list of visa waiver countries.Begun in 1986, the program has promoted tourism to the UnitedStates and expanded commercial ties with the rest of the world.Participating countries now account for two-thirds of visitors tothe United States outside of Canada and Mexico.

Program Stimulates Tourism and Business

For a country to join the program, it must meet certaincriteria. Among them, the refusal rate among current visaapplicants from the country must be less than 3 percent; itscitizens must be issued machine-readable passports, and itsgovernment must allow visa-free entry for U.S. citizens.[3]

The VWP has been a boon to the U.S. economy, promoting tourismand business travel. Visitors under the program stimulate anestimated $75 billion to $100 billion in economic activity in theUnited States each year through travel and spending. On average,VWP visitors will spend $2,253 per visit in the United Statescompared with $1,274 by other visitors.[4]

If Congress were to revoke the program for the existing 27countries, the economic impact on the United States would besignificant. According to the Commerce Department, eliminating theprogram would mean 3 million fewer visitors during the next fiveyears, costing the United States $28 billion in lost economicactivity during that period.[5] Assessing the broader impact, the reportconcluded that revoking the program "could negatively affect U.S.relations with participating country governments, impede tourism tothe United States, and increase the need for State personnel andfacilities overseas." [6] The logical implication is that extending theprogram to deserving countries would promote more tourism andeconomic activity, nurture better relations with participatingcountries, and free up State Department personnel and facilitiesoverseas for more critical uses.

For tangible evidence, consider the differing experiences ofPortugal and the Czech Republic. The two countries are remarkablysimilar in their demographics and economic relations with theUnited States. Their total populations and GDP per capita arealmost identical.[7] Two-way trade with the United States and theamount of U.S. foreign direct investment in each country are alsoquite similar (see Table 1).[8]

Table 1Visa Barriers Discourage Czech Visitors

 Czech Republic Portugal
Population 10.2M 10.6M
GDP per Capita $20,000 $19,000
U.S. FDI in Country $2,785M $2,712M
Two-Way Trade in Goods $3,247M $3,461M
Visitors to U.S. 45,671 103,473
Visa Waver No Yes
Source: Population July 2006, GDP per capita (PPP),2005, CIAFactbook www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html.U.S. FDI, end of 2005, U.S. Commerce Department, "Survey of CurrentBusiness," July 2006, p. 33; Two-way trade, 2005, U.S. CensusBureau, www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/index.html#C. Visitorsto the United States, Fiscal Year 2005, Immigration StatisticsYearbook, Office of Immigration Statistics.

Both are members of NATO and the European Union. Akey difference,however, is that Portugal gained visa waiver status before 2001,while the Czech Republic languishes outside the gate as one of the"roadmap countries." As a result, the annual number of visitors tothe United States from Portugal is more than twice that of theCzech Republic.[9]

One obvious explanation for the huge difference is the need forCzech visitors to acquire a visa. Acquiring a visa costs onehundred U.S. dollars and requires filling out numerous forms andwaiting weeks and sometimes months for an interview at a consulatethat may be a significant distance from a potential visitor's home.The far lower number of visitors from the Czech Republic comparedwith those from Portugal hints at the large number of potentialvisitors who are being discouraged from travel to the United Statesby the current moratorium on extending visa waiver status.

No Compromise of National Security

Extending the VWPto a small and select group of countries wouldnot compromise the ability of the U.S. government to protect theAmerican homeland from terrorists and others who would do us harm.None of the roadmap countries harbor restive populations associatedeven indirectly with terrorism aimed at the United States. Ifsecurity concerns center on Islamic extremists, most of the roadmapcountries under current consideration are home to relatively smallMuslim populations.

According to the U.S. State Department's annual survey ofreligious freedom, South Korea, Poland, the Czech Republic,Slovakia, Hungary, and the three Baltic republics are home to acombined Muslim population of fewer than 100,000. In contrast, thenumber of Muslims living in the major visa waiver countries ofWestern Europe--Germany, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands,Italy, and Spain--is more than 13 million.[10] If a major security worry isthat Muslim extremists will be able to slip into the United Statesthrough a visa waiver country, the eight road map countries listedabove are not a significant problem.

The 3-percent rejection rate threshold should not be a barrierto expanding the program. The system is designed to filter outpeople who would be disproportionately inclined to overstay theirvisas to the Untied States for economic reasons and thus add to thepopulation of undocumented people here. Visa rejections on thosegrounds are inherently subjective, based on underinformed andlargely intuitive judgments of embassy and consulate personnel.

For various reasons, South Korea and most of the Central andEastern European countries are not likely to become major sourcesof illegal visa "overstayers." Those nations are generally middle-and upper-income countries. Six roadmap countries--the CzechRepublic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, South Korea, and Greece--aremembers of the rich-country club, the Organization of EconomicCooperation and Development. The economic incentive for theirresidents to immigrate illegally to the United States is weak. Formany of the European countries, their residents are already able tomigrate freely to other member states of the European Union,further reducing the allure of an illegal existence in the UnitedStates.

If several thousand Koreans and Europeans did take advantage ofan expanded program to overstay and settle illegally in the UnitedStates, the harm to our country would be minimal. In fact, suchimmigrants might actually benefit our economy by filling niches inour labor market and adding to our productive capacity. The risk ofa relatively small number of visitors overstaying their visas wouldbe far outweighed by the palpable benefits of more tourism andbusiness visitors, enhanced foreign relations, and a redeploying ofconsular resources to countries where security concerns are morepressing.

As a final safeguard, the U.S. government can promptly terminatea nation's participation in the program if they determine that itthreatens U.S. economic or national security interests. Forexample, sharp economic downturns in Argentina and Uruguaybeginning in 2001 raised concerns that visitors from thosecountries would seek to stay illegally in the United States toescape difficult conditions in their home country. As a result,Argentina was removed from the program in February 2002 and Uruguayin April 2003.[11]

Expanding the VWP to a select list of countries would enhancenational security by allowing the State Department to concentrateits resources and personnel in regions of the world where securitythreats are more likely to emanate. As a recent CongressionalResearch Service report summarized, "by waiving the visarequirement for high-volume/low-risk countries, consular workloadsare significantly reduced, allowing for streamline operation, costsavings, and concentration of resources on greater risk nations inthe visa process."[12]

The VWP could be prudently expanded by congressional action thatwould allow the 3-percent rejection threshold to be temporarilywaived for otherwise qualified countries. If expansion to certaincountries proved an unacceptable risk to U.S. security or led towidespread violation of U.S. immigration law, any country could bepromptly removed from the programÃÆ'Ã' la Argentina and Uruguay.The U.S. government could also require that visitors from VWPcountries submit biographical details through the Internet beforedeparting for the United States to give the Department of HomelandSecurity an opportunity to compare their names to those on securitywatch lists. Australia has implemented such a system through itsElectronic Travel Authority process.

Tearing Down Another Cold War Barrier

Twenty years ago in Berlin, President Ronald Reagan issued hisfamous challenge to President Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."Within three years the Berlin Wall was history. Now we have anopportunity, by extending the Visa Waive Program to deservingcountries, to complete Ronald Reagan's vision by tearing down oneof the last remaining barriers of the Cold War.

In a letter to President Bush in May 2006, former CzechPresident and anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel urged theUnited States to add his country and other proven friends of theUnited States to the VWP. "Contacts between Czechs and Americansare currently complicated by the asymmetrical visa requirement thatsubjects Czech citizens to an expensive and arduous visaapplication process," Havel wrote. Speaking for his country as wellas others, Havel added that expanding the program would "removewhat Czechs feel is an unfortunate relic of the Cold War that nolonger belongs in the modern Czech-U.S. alliance. It also allowsyou to demonstrate to an emancipated and self-confident ally therenowned U.S. spirit of equality and fair play."[13]

At a time when the United States is seeking not only to attractmore global customers for its goods and services but also to buildstronger ties to our allies, expanding the Visa Waiver Program toeligible countries offers a power tool to further bothobjectives.

[1] Countries currently participating inthe program are 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.[2]Mimi Hall, "Bush Wants More Countries in Visa-Waiver Program," USAToday, November 28, 2006.[3] Alison Sisken, "Visa Waiver Program," Congressional ResearchService, Order Code RL 32221, Updated January 24, 2006, p.2.[4] General Accounting Office, "Border Security: Implications ofEliminating the Visa Waiver Program," GAO-03-38, November 2002, p.22.[5] Ibid., p. 21.[6] Ibid., p. 16.[7] Central Intelligence Agency, CIA Factbook, www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html.[8] For foreign investment, see U.S. Commerce Department, "Survey ofCurrent Business," July 2006, p. 33. For two-way trade, see U.S.Census Bureau, www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/index.html#C.[9] Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics,2005 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, www.dhs.gov/ximgtn/statistics/.[10] See relevant country reports inU.S. State Department, "2006 Annual Report on InternationalReligious Freedom," September 15, 2006, www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2006/.[11] Alison Sisken, "Visa WaiverProgram," Congressional Research Service, Order Code RL 32221,Updated January 24, 2006, p. 3.[12] Ibid., p. 9.[13] Letter from Vaclav Havel toPresident George W. Bush, May 31, 2006, in author's file.