An overlooked but critical component of immigration reform would modernize how the United States welcomes visitors — businesspeople, tourists and relatives of Americans — from friendly nations. The Senate immigration legislation includes a measure to revamp the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from selected countries to travel without visas to and in the United States for up to 90 days. The House needs to join in updating this key program. Stagnancy is straining U.S. relationships with allies and hamstringing our economy.
The VWP, open only to citizens of countries where no more than 3 percent of applicants are refused for visas by U.S. consular officers — known as the “refusal rate” — carries to a national level a central flaw of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act: It makes an entire country’s citizens guilty until proved innocent of wanting to violate the terms of their visas. In so doing, it deters bona fide tourists, businesspeople and students.
Under the Senate measure, countries with a visa “overstay” rate of less than 3 percent could join the VWP if they also meet a more relaxed refusal rate of 10 percent. Shifting the criteria away from application rejection would encourage other countries to partner in ensuring that their citizens respect the terms of their travel permission, so as not to jeopardize participation in the program.
Expanding the VWP in this manner makes sense. Inhibiting legal travel by law-abiding citizens from pro-American nations needlessly overloads consular officers whose focus should be on terrorists and law-breakers. It also costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars and leaves our nation at a competitive disadvantage, particularly against European countries.
According to a 2012 statement from the U.S. Travel Association, visitors from participating countries spent $61 billion in the United States in 2010, generating $9 billion in tax revenue and supporting 433,000 American jobs. An expanded and refocused program would encompass more travelers who want to visit family, conduct business and spend money.
Reforming the program would also help make the United States more secure. Participating nations must fulfill several security commitments, including maintaining certain law enforcement standards and counterterrorism practices. Membership creates strong domestic political incentives for countries to secure their borders and take security steps that allow them to remain in the partnership.
Improved security is one reason efforts at reform have broad bipartisan support. Dozens of members of Congress from both parties, including Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, have sponsored reform. President Obama, former homeland security secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff and former ambassadors from both parties also support expanding the program.
Our own support reflects our conviction that current U.S. visa laws unfairly restrict visitors whom our country should welcome. All of us have served as U.S. ambassador to Romania. In that role, we each met scores of Romanians who shared American values and respected this country for the freedoms it represents yet who were prevented from visiting the United States, usually because their income was low by U.S. standards. The presumption that they would seek to remain here illegally — leaving behind the comforts of culture, family and friends — was often misguided.
The reforms under consideration would not guarantee people from Romania, Poland, Croatia and Bulgaria — the only European Union nations excluded from the VWP — the opportunity to visit the United States visa-free. But citizens from these countries can travel visa-free and work legally in Europe. By lessening the presumption of guilt that U.S. visa applicants must now overcome, reform could allow more citizens from these friendly countries to forge on an individual level the bonds that are essential to the broader partnerships that our nation should want to encourage.
Ridge and Chertoff wrote to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., in March that almost all travelers through the program are screened through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization before arriving in the United States. That means the State Department will be able to focus consulate interviews on suspect individuals and specific countries. This is a better use of U.S. talent and resources — and a better outcome for foreign visitors who want to see and experience our great country.
Congress has the opportunity to modernize our visa system, simultaneously improving the U.S. economy, securing U.S. borders and building relationships that matter. The comprehensive immigration bill awaiting House action would accomplish these goals. House members of both parties, many of whom have sponsored VWP reform in the past, should work to enact it. Our country owes its friends better.
Jim Rosapepe was the U.S. ambassador to Romania in the Clinton administration. J.D. Crouch and Michael Guest were U.S. ambassadors to Romania in the George W. Bush administration. Mark Gitenstein was the U.S. ambassador to Romania in the Obama administration.