Last week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold President Donald Trump’s travel ban (Trump v. Hawaii).
In its ruling, the court was clear in its belief that the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)—a security partnership that allows most residents of 38 allied nations to travel visa-free to the U.S. for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or fewer—is the “gold standard” of international visitor security vetting.
Now that the U.S. court system has set guidelines for the president’s executive orders on immigration, the administration’s focus should be on messaging and initiatives that make it clear that the U.S. will always be closed to terrorists and criminals, but welcoming of legitimate business and leisure travelers. What better way to send that message to the world than through the expansion of the VWP?
The VWP does double duty by reconciling a strong, secure system of vetting with our nation’s desire to welcome legitimate international business and leisure travelers. America—and more broadly, the world—is safer because of the VWP. Participating nations are required to share with the U.S. information about known or suspected criminals and terrorists, and the U.S. is permitted to inspect participating nations’ security standards, protocols and apparatus. VWP travelers are also required to use ePassports: high-tech, difficult-to-copy passports that contain a holder’s name, date of birth, etc., as well as biometric information.
When VWP travelers plan to visit the U.S., they must first submit an application through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) to allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to assess their risk profile. By ensuring that these travelers are known to law enforcement, intelligence and immigration communities, the ESTA allows CBP agents to direct resources toward higher security risks and unknown travelers, which plays a significant role in the security benefits of the VWP.
Another major benefit of the VWP is that it requires participating nations to enter information on all lost or stolen passports into INTERPOL’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database. According to the Department of Homeland Security, VWP countries have provided more than 70 percent of the records in the SLTD database. The information in this database makes it easier to identify and stop the travel of terrorists and other bad actors globally, thus making air travel safer around the world.
While the security benefits of the VWP are numerous, the program also helps to facilitate travel growth between the U.S. and its member nations, which results in a significant economic impact.
For example, after South Korea was added to the VWP in 2008, travel between the U.S. and South Korea rapidly expanded. Just a few years ago, there were only three weekly flights between Seoul and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, one of America’s largest travel hubs. Just five years after South Korea joined the VWP, there were 14 weekly flights between the two destinations. By 2016, South Korean visitors accounted for five percent of all overseas arrivals to the U.S., and it is estimated that South Korea overtook Germany to become the fourth-largest overseas inbound travel market in 2017. South Korean visitors to the U.S.—of which there were 2 million in 2016—spent $8.6 billion.
When qualified countries are able to join the VWP, the economic benefits are abundant. The admittance of more qualified nations to the program will be key in welcoming more high-spending international visitors to the U.S., thus growing America’s share of the global international travel market.
The United States can—and should—be the most secure and the most welcoming nation: expanding the VWP will make the U.S. safer, and will send a message to the world that America is open to all legitimate international business and leisure travelers.