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May 22, 08

NEWS / Improved Economies Will Lead to More Visa Waiver Agreements


U.S. officials hope to add eight more countries to the program in 2008

By Stephen Kaufman
Staff Writer

Washington -- The vast majority of visitors to the United States who overstay their visas do so for economic reasons, and Bush administration officials expressed optimism that as non-U.S. economies improve, more countries will become eligible to participate in the visa waiver program (VWP) that allows visits for business or pleasure for up to 90 days without a visa.

Richard Barth, assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Policy Development, told members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe May 14 that countries with high rates of visitors to the United States and low rates of rejection on U.S. visa applications are ideal candidates for the program.

The State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for visa services, Stephen Edson, told the subcommittee that economic factors are “the primary driver for nonimmigrant visa refusals,” because the rejected candidates are seen as likely to overstay their visa and to try to work illegally in the United States. An increase in economic opportunities in their home countries or in other countries where they can work legally likely would lower the rate of refusals for U.S. visas, making the country more eligible to participate in the VWP.

Program guidelines have required that the refusal rates for nonimmigrant visas in a country cannot exceed 3 percent, but recent legislation has given Homeland Security some flexibility if the refusal rate remains below 10 percent.

Subcommittee Chairman Robert Wexler (Democrat from Florida) said data from 2006 showed that more than 15 million people used the program to enter the United States for business, education, tourism and visits with friends and family.

“The visa waiver program is a crucially important security, economic, cultural and diplomatic tool for the United States, and has enabled temporary visa-free travel for Americans and citizens in 27 allied nations for over 22 years,” Wexler said.

The current participants are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

In addition, memorandums of understanding have been signed between the United States and the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia, Malta and the Republic of Korea.

Assistant Secretary Barth said the Bush administration wants to bring the new members into the program “this year if at all possible,” and said he has also visited Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to discuss future participation in the program.

“I would submit that over probably a very short time, in the next several years, their [visa] refusal rates will come down pretty dramatically because, from firsthand witnessing, their economies are booming and developing.” Because the typical reason for visa refusal is to prevent an overstay, “their improved economies will decrease the refusal rates,” Barth said.

SECURITY IMPROVEMENTS, PROGRAM EXPANSION LINKED

The twin goals of the VWP, security and expansion of the program, are complimentary, he argued. “Expanding the circle of countries admitted creates tremendous incentives for VWP aspirants to enhance their security standards at home and deepen their cooperation with the United States on security-related issues,” Barth said.

Wexler said that two countries, Argentina and Uruguay, have been removed from the program due to the number of their citizens overstaying their visas. However, Barth said the vast majority of visa waiver participants are indeed leaving the United States within the 90-day limit, and some of the reported overstays are due to the failure of airlines to turn in proper documentation that the visitor has left the country.

President Bush signed the 9/11 Commission Act into law in summer 2007. Among its provisions were more stringent requirements for travel document standards and information sharing for countries aspiring to join the visa waiver program. The new law also allows flexibility for countries whose visa refusal rates are less than 10 percent, broadening the potential for wider participation.

“With the advancement of both new security technologies and new security risks, we can and must ensure that for VWP participants and aspirant countries, we are able to assess the risks posed by individuals on a traveler-by-traveler basis, rather than a county-by-country basis alone,” Edson said. “The changes to the VWP in the 9/11 act give us the tools to do this.”

Wexler and other members of the subcommittee expressed concerns over the lack of progress on VWP negotiations with Greece, which originally had been slated to join the program in the near term along with the other eight countries. Barth said in his meetings with Greek authorities earlier in 2008 he was presented with a draft memorandum of understanding that differed greatly from the working version from the previous year and included many elements that would make enforcement logistically difficult for U.S. officials.

For more information, see “Officials Urge Congress To Modernize, Expand Visa Waiver Program.”

Tags: document, visa application,
 




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