If You Extend the Visa Waiver Program, They Will Come
In tonight's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama is expected to make reform of the nation's immigration laws one of his top priorities. To succeed, he will have to satisfy skeptical House Republicans that immigration reform would not be as disastrous now as it was in 1986, the last time Congress revamped the laws. Fortunately for Obama, the cards are in his favor: improved overall border security has made illegal immigration a much less daunting challenge.
(Stuart Seeger / flickr)
If you want to travel from Spain to the United States, the process is simple. You register online through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), pay a fee of $14, and either get an instant answer or wait a day or two while the U.S. government checks to make sure that you are not a terrorist or a wanted criminal. Your stay can last up to three months, no questions asked.
If you want to travel from Brazil to the United States, however, you will first need to apply for a visitor visa, pay a fee of $140, and then wait two to six weeks for a consular interview. If that goes well, you then wait a little longer as your visa is processed. And this is good news; a year ago, before the Obama administration made speedier visa processing a priority, the wait time was much longer -- usually three months or more.
The different treatment for travelers from Spain and Brazil is the historical legacy of the 1986 Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which offers visa-free travel for visitors from the United States' wealthier allies. Tourists from these countries, Washington assumed, were likelier than others to go home to their prosperous lives rather than overstay their visas. Today, all but a handful of the 36 countries in the VWP are European. The rest are developed Asia-Pacific countries -- such as Australia, Japan, and, recently, South Korea. Not a single Latin American or African country is part of the VWP...