This op-ed originally appeared in Politico.
The Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act (H.R. 1401/S. 2091) has just reached 100 co-sponsors in the House. The bill would provide a significant boost to both our economy and national security by expanding and enhancing the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which facilitates entry to the United States for millions of pre-screened international travelers. For these reasons, the U.S. travel community will not rest until the JOLT Act achieves passage by both chambers this session.
We are confident we will get there, and here’s why.
First and foremost, when we speak to members of Congress about the bill, we are completely upfront about the sole shortcoming of the VWP: its dreadfully misleading name. It implies that security checks are somehow “waived” for persons seeking to enter the U.S. from member nations, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, security protocols for VWP member countries are every bit as stringent as those for non-member states. They include issuing microchip-embedded passports with biometric information that are particularly difficult to forge; promptly entering data on all lost and stolen passports into a central INTERPOL database; and complying with essential information-sharing agreements with the United States. For the 38 countries that are currently VWP members, the U.S. has ongoing access to inspect their counter-terrorism, border control, aviation and travel document security methods and facilities.
The VWP really only “waives” one aspect of visa issuance procedures: the in-person interview at a U.S. consular facility. As former CIA Director Porter Goss wrote in The Hill newspaper: “No one can credibly suggest our best line of defense against a determined terrorist is a consulate interview. Security experts are in near-unanimous agreement that the intelligence gathered and extra security layers associated with VWP are at least as effective as those interviews and more valuable as a long-term security tool.”
He’s right. Every former Homeland Security secretary, from both sides of the aisle, favors expanding the VWP. The Heritage Foundation—certainly not dovish on security issues—has strongly opined on the program’s security virtues as well. So has former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who said at a recent Heritage Foundation forum, “The Visa Waiver Program is a plus-plus for our national security and for our economic security. We have constructed a program that makes a reduction of vulnerability very powerful.” The list goes on.
That’s why the travel community is appreciative of one measure in the JOLT Act: renaming the VWP the “Secure Travel Partnership Program,” which captures its essence much more effectively.
Because of the VWP, governments around the world today are working cooperatively at the highest levels of law enforcement to identify risky travelers before boarding flights to the United States. The chorus of support for the VWP from security professionals reflects the unique and critical role VWP plays: since 2008, the U.S. has denied entry to over 4,300 would-be travelers known or suspected or posing a threat, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In some cases, the U.S. has suspended or dismissed nations from the VWP for failing to maintain the program’s standards. And the VWP has beneficial effects even before a country is admitted: for the many nations that hope to someday become a VWP member, the aspiration offers a powerful incentive to raise security standards unilaterally, in advance of their acceptance.
But the JOLT Act would take the VWP’s security virtues even further. The bill would:
· Enhance passport security by closing the loophole allowing some VWP citizens to enter the U.S. with non-electronic passports;
· Improve traveler vetting by mandating a review of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA); and
· Codify now-discretionary provisions—on airport security, air marshal programs and sharing of counter-terrorism information—to ensure that VWP partner countries adhere to strict safety protocols.
But perhaps the best news about the JOLT Act is that it would do as much good for the economy as for security—something once thought impossible in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In 2014, VWP visitors generated $190 billion in economic output and supported nearly one million U.S. jobs. This is why, largely as a result of the VWP, inbound international travel is our nation’s No. 1 services export, yielding a trade surplus of $75.6 billion in 2014.
There is zero doubt those numbers would improve dramatically if the VWP were expanded under the tenets of the JOLT Act. When South Korea was admitted to the program in 2008, visitor spending in the U.S. by citizens of that country increased 52 percent over the ensuing four years. With friendly, burgeoning economies such as Poland, Israel and Brazil waiting in the wings for VWP membership, the possibilities for new economic activity and job creation are tantalizing.
In addition to VWP expansion, the JOLT Act would increase international travel to the U.S. by encouraging Canadian tourism to the U.S; authorizing a pilot program to test the use of secure videoconference technology for visa interviews in large countries where our consulates are far apart; expanding the Global Entry program that allows pre-vetted, low-risk international visitors access to expedited customs clearance; and codifying target deadlines to enforce reduced visa-application wait times.
Today, the VWP is already an essential element of our nation’s layered approach to protecting the homeland and the traveling public—not to mention the demonstrated good it does for the U.S. economy. But even proven programs can and should evolve, and the JOLT Act achieves that for the VWP. We applaud the bipartisan and bicameral leadership of the lead JOLT Act sponsors—Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.)—and we ask the leadership of both chambers to move the legislation during the current Congress.