The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is currently under fire by some who view the program as a security liability. Heritage Foundation research shows that the VWP is a tremendous boon to U.S. security and while any program can and should be improved, doing away with the VWP would harm U.S. security.
The VWP provides citizens of 38 member countries the ability to enter the U.S. without a visa, but these individuals are still screened through U.S. security databases and terror watch lists multiple times before they enter the U.S. Additionally, member countries must agree to share information and intelligence on criminals, terrorists, and lost and stolen passports, as well as upgrade other elements of their travel and airport security. These countries also must provide reciprocal travel benefits to U.S. citizens.
When Senators Jeff Flake (R–AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D–CA) announced their bill to change the VWP, they were particularly focused on preventing individuals who had travelled to Syria and Iraq from using the VWP. However, these provisions would likely add little security and also have negative consequences for other low-risk travelers and potential U.S. citizens.
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While such provisions are less than ideal, new details about the bill show that it will be harmful to travel and security. Specifically, Senators Flake and Feinstein would require all VWP travelers to submit biometric data (fingerprints) before travelling to the U.S. While this sounds good in practice, the devil is in the details.
For example, there is the question of how travelers will submit their fingerprints before flying. There seem to be two options—either all travelers must now visit a U.S. consulate or all VWP countries must have biometric exit systems. Both options are problematic.
First, requiring all travelers to visit a U.S. consulate is very problematic from a travel perspective. The whole point of the VWP is to make it easy for low-risk travelers from low-risk countries to visit the U.S. Requiring that every traveler visit a U.S. consulate before travel will nullify much of the advantages that other countries’ citizens receive from the VWP, potentially causing countries to quit the program. This would be detrimental to U.S. security because, as part of the VWP, countries share intelligence and information with the U.S. and take other security measures. If they drop out, those security improvements could wither away.
Second, requiring that travelers provide biometrics at their departure airports presents its own challenges. Some countries—the U.S. included—do not have a biometric exit system at ports of entry because it is costly and is not the best way to spend limited counterterrorism dollars. Forcing others to implement biometric exit might be a bridge too far, as it also risks countries leaving the program.
Of course, if the U.S. forced either option on foreign travelers and countries, they could reciprocate and tell us to do the same, forcing the U.S. to spend its limited counterterrorism dollars inefficiently or making it much more difficult for U.S. travelers to visit other countries.
In any event, all of this trouble is for minimal security benefits, since the U.S. does gather biometrics at ports of entry, preventing entry or arresting individuals whose fingerprints are flagged by U.S. security databases. The VWP, when paired with requirements on airport security and passport security, ensures security with much less cost than the traditional visa process or Flake–Feinstein.
Of course, there are provisions that could benefit security in the Flake–Feinstein bill, such as pushing other countries to accept Federal Air Marshals on airplanes or allowing the Department of Homeland Security to temporarily suspend member countries that are not adequately sharing information. Additionally, efforts to further e-passports are worthwhile, so long as they are implemented in a reasonable timeframe.
In its current state, however, the Flake–Feinstein bill is likely to do more harm than good. The U.S. should look to continually improve and expand the VWP as it provides the U.S. with tremendous security and travel benefits.