Meeting Mentor Magazine

September 2022

Cover Story

Security Concerns Prompt Changes
To Visa Waiver Program

International attendees are fertile ground for meeting planners. But the highly successful Visa Waiver Program (VWP) — which allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa for stays of 90 days or less when they meet all requirements — is butting up against national security concerns.

Legislation to strengthen the security of the program is percolating within the halls of Congress. On the House side, H.R. 158, introduced in January, seeks to improve the program’s security reporting as well as foreign government compliance with security measures. Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is working on a bill whose details and timetable were not available at press time.

According to the most recent statistics (FY2013) from the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 2.8 million temporary business visitors came through the program, representing 4.6 percent of 61 million non-immigrant admissions to the U.S.

In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security this week, Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S Travel Association, identifies the travel community’s support for “sensible” reforms to the VWP and the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel Act (JOLT). Changes should “offer elevated levels of personal and national security, while focusing on areas of concern that are based on fact…and minimizing disruption to legitimate travelers.” He also advocates for a change in the program name, which makes visa waiver “sound like security is shortchanged.” But, “shutting down programs like the VWP that not only facilitate travel but also provide valuable information to our counterterrorism and law enforcement officials is not a formula to keeping us safe,” Dow emphasizes.

More data, more security. To enhance visa waiver security, the DHS in November added data fields — more passport data, contact information and potential names or aliases —  to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) application. “These enhancements will improve the department’s ability to screen prospective VWP travelers, and…identify those who pose a security risk,” said DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee.

Existing high standards. A November 2014 report, How the Visa Waiver Program Is Keeping America Safe, from Steptoe & Johnson LLP, counters claims of security loopholes within the VWP by citing the strength of existing program measures. These range from screening all travelers against multiple law enforcement and security databases before departure; sharing robust information and intelligence between the U.S. and VWP countries; meeting high standards for travel documents in order to better detect fraudulent or forged passports; and periodic eligibility reviews of VWP countries.

Countering proposed legislation that would suspend the VWP, the report noted that “disappearance of the program would remove a powerful and proven incentive to elevate security standards and enhance cooperation with the United States on security matters.” It suggested that Congress amend the VWP law to codify some security requirements (such as airport security standards) that are discretionary at present. DHS could also add resources to the VWP office, especially in light of the considerable economic impact of travelers to the U.S.

New goals. The U.S. Department of Commerce and DHS recently issued a joint report to President Barack Obama on achievements in increasing international arrivals (+19 million annually over the past five years) and travel-related jobs in America (+280,000 over the same period). The economic impact of these visitors was $222 billion in 2014, as they spent $3,080 per visit on average and supported 1.1 million U.S. jobs.

Since the international arrivals experience is key to continuing the upward trends, the report sets out some new goals toward reaching 100 million international visitors who annually spend $250 billion by the end of 2021:
Extending the Visa Waiver Program. In 2014, Chile was added to the list of now 38 participating countries, who also waive visas for U.S. citizens to travel there. The countries are subject to standards inspections and biennial eligibility reviews, along with other stringent requirements of the VWP. Ten-year business (and tourist) visas were also issued this past year to Chinese citizens to help them regularly travel back and forth.
Expanding Trusted Traveler and Global Entry Programs, which expedite clearance for pre-approved, low-risk air travelers arriving in the U.S. High rates of use, exceeding 9 to 10 percent on some days, translate into 3 million travelers who have used the kiosks more than 12 million times since the program’s debut.
Technology improvement and process modernization at airports (the top 17 account for 73.7 percent of all international travelers to the U.S.):
• Adding 340 automated passport control kiosks, which have reduced officer interaction time by 45 percent, allowing greater focus on security, safety and public health.
• Expanding to 20 airports by the end of 2016 a successful pilot at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which enabled travelers to submit forms through their smartphone or tablet prior to U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection.
• Deploying 2,000 mobile devices by end of FY 2015 across sea, land and air ports for processing passengers and cargo more efficiently.
• Eliminating paper customs declaration by the end of 2016. — Maxine Golding

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