On February 28, the Obama Administration announced the designation of Chile as the 38th country to be admitted into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP). That’s great as far as it goes.

The VWP allows foreign nationals to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa for tourism or business. The program boosts trade and tourism with the U.S. and, importantly, also improves U.S. security efforts.

In order to become a member of the VWP program, a nation must:

  • Have a specific non-immigrant visa refusal rate (the percentage of visa applications from that particular nation that are denied by the State Department);
  • Issue all residents secure machine-readable biometric passports;
  • Meet a determination that membership presents no threat to U.S. law enforcement or security interests;
  • Share security information with the U.S; and
  • Improve airport and travel security efforts.

To gain access to VWP benefits, citizens of member countries must first apply for approval through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which pre-screens potential travelers to ensure that they are not a security threat to the U.S. By pre-screening individuals, U.S. security and intelligence agencies can then focus their limited resources on other travelers, improving the effectiveness of security efforts.

While it is good to see the addition of Chile to the list of nations in the VWP, other close friends, such as Poland, remain out of the program due to the flawed mandate for low visa refusals rates. VWP membership should depend not on visa refusal rates but on visa overstay rates, which is a much better indicator of how well a nation’s citizens respect U.S. laws.

But as Heritage vice president for foreign policy Jim Carafano wrote recently, in general the Obama Administration has maintained a go-slow approach to “fast-tracking visa waivers, expanding visas for high-skilled workers, establishing a new temporary worker program or bolstering border security.” The reason appears to be that, although the immigration bill that passed the Senate made some reforms to the VWP, Congress is not moving a stand-alone VWP bill, because the Administration and many in Congress will accept only a comprehensive, all-or-nothing immigration bill that includes amnesty. Thus they are effectively holding other valuable, bipartisan reforms hostage to the passage of such a bill.

Rather than hold up economic and security enhancing programs like VWP, President Obama and Congress should work to improve and expand VWP on its own merits. Carafano notes that “free and secure travel among free nations is an engine of economic growth and a glue that binds democracies together.” The VWP for Chile and many other countries can and should be expanded much more quickly to cover more people.