Nearly a month after the terror attacks in Paris, U.S. lawmakers continue to debate the future of America's Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which enables international travelers from approved countries to enter the United States without a visa. On one side of the aisle: those who want to tighten controls to make it harder for high-risk travelers to enter the country. On the other side: those who fear controls will go too far.
Somewhere in the middle is the travel industry, representatives of which expressed support for VWP reforms this week while also warning lawmakers to exercise caution.
"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," Michael W. McCormick, executive director and COO of the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), wrote in a blog post. "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 publicly supports."
The House of Representatives passed a VWP reform bill Tuesday that would strengthen U.S. security by requiring visitors from visa waiver countries to obtain a visa to travel to the United States if they have been to Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan during the past five years. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate and has received an endorsement from the White House, not to mention GBTA and the U.S. Travel Association.
"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," McCormick continued.
Added U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow, "Rather than embracing a knee-jerk reaction that threatens to set us back, this bill improves a process that is already making vital contributions to the fight against terrorism."
A Cautionary Note
Even as they embraced one set of proposals, Dow and McCormick were quick to oppose another -- put forth by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who have proposed collecting travelers' biometric information prior to departure. Such policies, Dow and McCormick argue, are redundant to screening procedures already in place and would deter millions of low-risk visitors from coming to the United States, harming the U.S. economy in the process.
"We're not saying that Congress should ignore security issues," Dow said. "What we're saying is that lawmakers need to be aware of the economic consequences of their policy decisions. We're saying it's possible to pass a package that lays to rest the worries about the integrity of the VWP without the negative economic fallout."
According to an analysis by the U.S. Travel Association, the Feinstein-Flake VWP bill would cost the United States 1.4 million first-time visitors and $5.4 billion in travel spending over the next five years if proposed reforms deterred just 10 percent of potential VWP visitors. If it deterred 50 percent, it would cost the nation 7 million first-time visitors and $27.2 billion in travel spending during the same period.
Concluded McCormick, "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 … 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."