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Security Concerns Snag White House Tourist Plan

Responding to bipartisan critics who fear a White House plan to increase tourism would weaken the country's security, Congress recently enacted a series of reforms to the country's visa program designed to allay concerns. But a new report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that the government may be unable to implement the reforms  without further straining the country's immigration system.

Credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesThe White House wants to expand the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), a popular Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and State Department initiative that permits some foreign vacationers or business travelers to stay in the country for 90 days without obtaining a visa. In 2007, almost 13 million foreign tourists -- nearly one-quarter of non-immigrant travelers, and over half of those coming from overseas -- arrived in the U.S. under VWP. The 27 VWP countries are selected by the State Department and DHS once they pass security criteria set by the agencies.

Conservatives and liberals alike argue that it fuels the tourism industry and offers an important diplomatic gesture to friendly nations (current member nations are mostly western European). The White House wants to expand the program and has signed Memoranda of Understanding to that effect with eight countries -- seven in Eastern Europe as well as South Korea.

But the program's detractors (who span the political spectrum from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO)) want to halt its expansion until new security standards are in place. The two sides struck a compromise to balance tourism and security interests in the recently-enacted 9/11 Act.  As the GAO report found, government agencies just don't seem able to institute the reforms:

  • The Act called for DHS to implement an electronic system for travel authorization (ESTA), an online form which, as of January 2009, tourists must complete prior to coming to the US. If an applicant is "flagged" by the ESTA system, he or she may either be denied entry or required to apply for a visa. The GAO estimates that ESTA will increase visa demand by 1-3 percent;  according to GAO Director of International Affairs and Trade Jess Ford, the agencies have not planned for this increase -- which would put a serious strain on resources in high volume places like England and France.
  • The national security bill also called for DHS to implement a system to measure the rate of foreign travelers from prospective and current VWP countries who leave the country. This "air exit system" is meant to placate VWP's anti-immigration detractors. But Ford testified (pdf) in February that the agency's plan provides no mechanism for matching entry and exit records, meaning it doesn't look at who leaves in the context of who arrives.

The bill also called for a system to fingerprint everyone who leaves the U.S. by plane or boat. The problem is that no one wants to pay for it. DHS recently issued a preliminary rule that would require the airline industry to foot the bill rather than customs enforcement or the Transportation Security Administration. The struggling airlines recoiled in horror, arguing that the bill would amount to $12.3 billion over 10 years ($9 million more than DHS's estimates).

DHS responded by shrugging off the concern: "The airline industry's quarrel here is with the 9/11 Commission and the U.S. Congress, and not with the Department of Homeland Security," DHS spokesperson Stewart Baker told the Washington Post.

Short of meeting these requirements -- which seems rather unlikely at this point -- the Bush administration won't be able to fulfill its commitments to prospective VWP nations.

"Not expanding the program would be a public relations disaster. To everyone we promised to let into the program, we'd have to say 'we're sorry,'" said James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has been a vocal supporter of expanding the program. "It would mean business lost for airlines and the tourism industry. With the price of fuel and the value of the dollar being what it is, we need overseas travelers. VWP is one sure way to get them."

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