Courtesy Reuters

If You Extend the Visa Waiver Program, They Will Come

The Rewards of Open Travel


(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.

By limiting the program, the United States is missing out on considerable economic, political, and security benefits. Some of the potentially eligible countries -- Argentina, Brazil, and Taiwan, to name a few -- have fast-growing economies. In 2010, the United States issued some 850,000 visas to citizens of those three countries alone. And the numbers are growing in double-digit percentages. Brazilians received 60 percent more visas in January 2012 than they did during the same month in 2011. Even so, more than 50 percent of overseas tourists from Brazil go to Western Europe and the United Kingdom -- where visas are not required -- compared with just 29 percent who come to the United States. The U.S. Travel Association recently estimated that, if Brazil and the other ten countries that are the most serious candidates for VWP status were admitted, the growth rate for visitors from these countries would double. And that would add $41 billion to the U.S. economy each year and create more than 250,000 jobs. 

Some of the other countries to which the United States could expand the VWP are important strategic allies, including Croatia, Poland, and Romania. These countries see VWP membership as a mark of acceptance into the club of advanced European economies, and the Obama administration would like to reward them for their close cooperation with the United States. During U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Poland in March, for example, she apologized for the failure to make good on President Barack Obama's 2011 pledge to admit Poland to the VWP by the end of his first term, calling the country "a model and mentor for emerging democracies."  

Finally, welcoming tourists from some of the more advanced developing countries such as Chile, Panama, and Uruguay would send a positive signal that the United States sees those nations as equal to its more developed allies. Such a signal would be especially beneficial in strengthening ties in Latin America, where China has been using its economic muscle to compete in a region long considered the United States' backyard.

Beyond the VWP applicant countries' eagerness to join, there is also a growing push inside the United States to expand the program. The tourist industry is pressing hard to reverse what it calls a "lost decade," during which overseas travel to the United States stayed flat, even as the world travel market grew enormously; between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. global share of overseas travel fell from 17 percent to 12 percent. Meanwhile, tourist-dependent (and politically important) states such as Florida are looking for an economic boost and lobbying the administration to ease travel restrictions. 

In January, Obama used the backdrop of Orlando's Walt Disney World to announce measures to speed up visa processing, promising a new push to expand the VWP as well. Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) have also introduced congressional legislation that would open the door for many of those countries who want to join the program, with supporters ranging from New York's Democratic senator Charles Schumer Florida's Republican senator, Marco Rubio.

Despite signs of movement, however, many in Congress have been reluctant to expand visa-free travel. Some still see it as a security risk, even though both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations beefed up the security requirements for new countries that wish to join the VWP. For example, since 2007, applicant governments have been required to agree to share criminal and intelligence information, which greatly enhances the Department of Homeland Security's ability to identify and stop travelers who pose a threat. In addition, countries that join must implement better passenger and baggage screening; adopt secure, forgery-proof passports; and agree to timely reporting of stolen passports. Further, countries must allow regular U.S. government auditing of their travel-related security programs. And finally, they must enroll in the ESTA, which requires U.S. screening of all travelers against U.S. terrorist and criminal watch lists. The result is a system that in many ways provides greater security against terrorist or criminal travelers than the regular visa system. 

Beyond undue concern about the VWP's security implications, however, U.S. lawmakers are also worried about additional illegal immigration. By the best available estimates (although they are crude ones), some 40 percent of the 10 million to 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States originally arrived on legal visas, and then simply did not return home. The rest came illegally across U.S. land borders, mostly from Mexico. Congress has understandably been unwilling to expand visa-free travel without some guarantees that it will not lead to a surge in that population. The concern is that, under an expanded VWP, a traveler who would currently be denied a visa if a U.S. consular officer suspected that he or she would remain in the United States illegally, would face no obstacles.  

It is with those very concerns in mind that, in 2007, Congress adopted the current standard for adding new countries, stipulating that those with a visa refusal rate greater than three percent (meaning, roughly, that the United States granted visas to no less than 97 percent of applicants from that country) could only be admitted to the program if and when the United States is able to verify accurately the departure of travelers through its airports.

For some countries seeking to join the VWP, the 2007 standard is unproblematic. The first country in line, Taiwan, has a visa refusal rate of just 1.9 percent. It is expected to be admitted later this year. Argentina, which used to be a member but was kicked out in 2002 over fears that its economic crisis would spark an exodus to the United States, currently has a refusal rate of just 2.5 percent. But no other potential member meets the threshold. Brazil's refusal rate last year was 3.8 percent, and Chile's was 3.4 percent. From there, the numbers for countries eager to join get much higher -- Croatia (6.3 percent), Poland (10.2), Bulgaria (15.7), and Romania (22.4).

Aspiring members complain that the refusal rate is an arbitrary measure because it is entirely a result of the judgments made by U.S. consular officers -- a concern that has many sympathizers in the Obama administration as well a growing number in Congress. But defenders, including those in Congress worried primarily about illegal immigration, argue that if countries with high refusal rates are admitted to the program, the result will be an influx of travelers who otherwise would have been denied visas and who will try to remain in the United States for good.  

For those countries over the refusal limit, the other way into the program appears blocked. Congress has required the administration to implement a biometric exit system, which implies that it must gather fingerprints of departing passengers, much as they are already collected for arriving travelers through what is known as the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) system. Only countries whose citizens reliably leave when their visas expire (the standard is 97 percent) would be eligible for VWP admission. The United States cannot currently meet that standard. Unlike many European countries, the United States has never had biometric exit controls, and U.S. international airports are not configured in a way that make exit checks easy to do. But the Department of Homeland Security argues that, through the use of passenger arrival and departure data based on passports, it can calculate a reasonably accurate visa overstay rate for each country. (For countries already in the VWP, officials say, the overstay rate is extremely low, under one percent.) 

As the Obama administration contemplates what to do, it has two options. First, it is pushing for passage of the legislation sponsored by Senators Kirk and Mikulski, with companion House legislation, to revise the VWP membership standard. This bill proposes that any country whose overstay rate is less than three percent could be admitted to the program even if it has a visa refusal rate as high as ten percent. That would open the door for Brazil, Chile, Croatia, and probably Poland, although not Bulgaria or Romania. Obama has spoken out in favor of this legislation, and Secretary of State Clinton reiterated that support during her visit to Poland.

While support is growing, the legislation remains a long shot this year. A handful of strong opponents in the Senate could derail the effort. As an alternative, and in keeping with Obama's election-year theme of acting when Congress fails to do so, the administration could decide to push ahead on its own. This would entail focusing the battle on the precise meaning of the biometric standard set out in the 2007 revision to the VWP. 

Obama might plausibly argue that the U.S. entry-exit system created over the past decade is already strict enough to meet that standard -- because fingerprints and photographs are collected on entry, along with passport information, and that same passport information is checked on departure. Although not technically a biometric exit system, the administration might be able to make a plausible case that it should be free to add countries that it calculates to have low overstay rates. There would surely be pushback from Congress, but it is unlikely that both House and Senate majorities could be mustered to block such an initiative. 

Over the past decade, this kind of unilateral move would not have been seriously considered. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations were reasonably fearful of any step that could be portrayed -- however inaccurately -- as weakening travel security. But that is changing. The Obama administration is growing more confident that the screening measures that it has in place are capable of identifying and stopping entry by terrorists and serious criminals. And expanding tourist and business travel to the United States is low-hanging fruit for an economy undergoing a weak recovery. Better security, an economic boost, and the diplomatic benefits that would result from expansion of the VWP make a powerful trifecta that should be hard for the administration to resist.

Edward Alden blogs at "Renewing America."

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