Following last week’s horrific attacks in Paris, terror concerns have continued to dominate the news cycle. In particular, headlines discussing the possibility of an attack on U.S. soil by ISIS fighters or those possessing European passports have led to claims that the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is a source of vulnerability.
It is critical that we continually evaluate successful security programs like the Visa Waiver Program lo to identify enhancements, much like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – which oversees the program –continually evaluates participating countries and recommends improvements to their security postures.
However, any discussion of the Visa Waiver Program must remain focused on the facts. And the facts are that the Visa Waiver Program enhances our ability to detect and prevent terrorist travel, ensures elevated security standards for member countries, incentivizes prospective members to meet elevated security standards, and gives the United States access to unprecedented levels of intelligence and information.
The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens from 38 participating countries to travel to the U.S. for business or vacation with prior authorization and, if admitted, to remain in the country for up to 90 days. The participating countries are close U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and Latin America that meet stringent security requirements, including counterterrorism, law enforcement, border control, aviation, and document security standards. For example, in order to maintain its eligibility, each country must ensure that its passports and travel documents meet technical standards that prevent forgery. What’s more, the VWP enables the U.S. government to audit the member country’s security standards on a regular basis. Countries can be—and have been—kicked out of the program or put on probation for failing to meet the program’s strict standards. No other program provides the U.S. government with the opportunity to conduct as far-reaching and consequential audits of foreign security standards, ensuring alignment with our high standards for managing risk.
Equally important, the U.S. government receives better information about which travelers might pose a threat, because participating countries must share information about their suspected terrorists and criminals. Supplementing the U.S. government’s “watchlists” with information from a traveler’s home government is invaluable. Before boarding a flight to the United States, each traveler under the program is individually screened—via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)—against multiple law enforcement and terrorism databases, and security is greatly enhanced when those databases include information from foreign governments.
The Visa Waiver Program , like any good security program, has evolved over time. Congress and the executive branch have repeatedly worked together to implement a number of enhancements to the Visa Waiver Program and address evolving threats to international travel and to the homeland. In fact, DHS implemented enhancements to the program as recently as last August. Additional sensible improvements include further tightening passport requirements and codifying aviation security standards, including the use of federal air marshals. However, requiring Visa Waiver Program travelers to submit biometrics (photographs or fingerprints) prior to boarding a flight, as some have suggested, would not meaningfully improve the security of the Visa Waiver Program . To the contrary, it would result in enormous resource, logistical, and diplomatic challenges that would adversely affect the program as a whole.
A few members of Congress have gone so far as to call for the program to be suspended, because they perceive the program as some kind of loophole. This indicates a serious misunderstanding of the many security elements that make up the Visa Waiver Program and how these elements fit into and enhance DHS’s larger border security and screening procedures. More importantly, suspending the program would be a severe blow to U.S. security, as it would result in the loss of significant leverage over the security practices of current members, including those to prevent radicalization and identify foreign fighters. It would also undermine current intelligence sharing mechanisms, to say nothing of the severe economic and diplomatic consequences.
Overall, the Visa Waiver program has proven to be an effective leverage point for raising and maintaining security standards while providing unprecedented levels of information sharing and access, allowing the United States to know far more about participating countries and their citizens. That the modernized Visa Waiver Program enhances U.S. security is widely recognized by security experts across the political spectrum. The last three secretaries of homeland security, for example, have praised the program’s contribution to U.S. and international security. Critics of the program claim that VWP compromises security, when in reality the program helps to keep the U.S. secure by fostering international alliances, enabling valuable security partnerships, and providing intelligence that helps stem the terrorist threat.
Source : The Hill