When President Obama addressed the nation Sunday night to discuss the threat from ISIS, he seemed to suggest that one of America’s most important and effective security programs – the Visa Waiver Program – should be placed under review. However, the President misspoke, and the White House corrected the error within minutes.
This correction is critically important because the Visa Waiver Program is today an essential element in America’s efforts to protect our homeland. Since its inception in 1986, it has evolved into a comprehensive security partnership with our closest allies and prevents tens of thousands of unauthorized visitors from entering our country every year.
In light of the recent attacks, there’s no question that reasonable steps can and should be taken to further strengthen the program, and Congress and the White House are working out the details of legislative reforms today, a process that GBTA publically supports. Additional layers of security — including new restrictions on individuals who have traveled recently to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan – are necessary to keep pace with the evolving threats.
But the fact is that the Visa Waiver Program is needed now more than ever, and policymakers should make sure that the program remains workable, even as they make reforms. We need risk-based programs like this one, so that we can focus our attention and limited resources on the most significant threats.
With the program, we can effectively vet millions of visitors to our country a year. Without it, travel would grind to a halt, which would do nothing to make us more secure and would harm our nation’s economy.
Here’s how it works:
The program allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States for business or leisure for up to 90 days without a visa. In return, those 38 countries must permit U.S. citizens and residents to travel to their countries for a similar length of time without a visa for business or tourism purposes.
The program provides for individualized pre-screening of travelers, as well as for information sharing among governments, enhanced international partnerships with law enforcement and intelligence services, and more secure passports.
No Visa Waiver Program traveler may be admitted to the United States until all security checks are completed and travel information is checked against multiple national security, law enforcement and INTERPOL’s databases before travel authorization is granted.
Additionally, commercial carriers operating flights to, from or through the United States must provide detailed name and biographical traveler data to the government. This data is then screened against U.S. and international law enforcement and counterterrorism databases to identify high-risk individuals before they depart for the United States. All Visa Waiver Program travelers are subject to this vetting.
This multi-layered approach has prevented terrorists, serious criminals and other bad actors from traveling to the United States. This includes 165,000 individuals carrying passports reported as lost or stolen and 6,000 individuals who did not receive electronic travel authorization.
Last year, 20 million visitors traveled to the U.S. under the visa waiver program, injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the U.S. economy. Without the program, travel to the U.S. would dry up and there would be serious economic impact.
So as Congress and the White House consider reforms to this program, let them know we need the Visa Waiver Program for a strong and secure America.