This piece originally appeared in Business Travel News.
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris only reinforce America’s need for us to remain vigilant about homeland security and for our Congress to continually undertake and evolve policies that better protect public safety. No one advocates for effective security precautions related to travel more strongly than the travel industry. Without public confidence in air security, no one would travel, and the 14.6 million American jobs that depend on travel would be jeopardized.
That’s why the U.S. Travel Association is resolute in its support of the Visa Waiver Program, an essential tool both for travel facilitation and security—but which some members of Congress erroneously fear is a soft spot that could be exploited by those who would perpetrate harm on our shores.
Fear for our safety at home in America is understandable. However, raw emotion often yields poor policy. Rushing to act, just for the sake of acting, can exacerbate the problem. What we need is a rational, informed travel-security dialogue in Congress that actually makes us safer, while preserving the valuable relationships that allow above-board business and leisure travelers to efficiently visit the U.S. from abroad and vice versa.
Sadly, that’s not what we’ve witnessed in the wake of the Paris assaults. Even successful programs can be improved, but many of the VWP “reforms” we’ve seen proposed in Congress would do more harm than good.
Because of the VWP, governments around the world now are working cooperatively at the highest levels of law enforcement to identify risky travelers. Since 2008, the U.S. has denied entry to over 4,300 would-be travelers who are known or suspected of posing a threat.
The U.S. has broad authority to inspect the counterterrorism, border control, aviation and travel-document security methods and facilities of the 38 countries that are currently VWP members. VWP protocols require participating nations to issue machine-readable passports that are difficult to forge, to enter data on all lost and stolen passports into a central Interpol database promptly and to collaborate with U.S. law enforcement under essential information-sharing agreements. For the many nations that hope to become VWP members, these requirements alone offer a strong incentive to raise security standards unilaterally in order to gain admission.
Leading national security experts agree. As former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff 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 VWP is a rare, exemplary government program that delivers both security and economic benefits. Last year, more than 20 million international travelers to the United States—over 60 percent of all visitors—arrived under the VWP, helping make inbound international travel America’s largest service export.
Of course, we should make it harder for potential terrorists with access to European passports to get to the United States. But some legislators wrongly assume the term “visa waiver” connotes a compromise in security. In reality, the VWP only further elevates the level of security offered by the visa process.
Some members of Congress have actually proposed suspending the VWP, without considering that it would virtually shut down global commerce, including international business travel to and from the United States. Others want to saddle the program with new requirements for gathering biometric data from passengers before they board a flight for the United States. Those proposed changes might make for good headlines, but they overlook the fact that such information is already collected from VWP passengers upon arrival, before they are released from secure areas of U.S. airports and technically enter the country. The changes also ignore the significant cost and difficulty of implementing and enforcing such a mandate at scores of foreign airports.
As bad, there is no evidence that VWP skeptics have considered the harm that undermining the program would inflict upon our international relationships. The European Union’s ambassador to the United States has warned that ill-considered changes to the VWP might bring retaliation from our program partners that would affect American travelers.
Make no mistake: We support strengthening real security but do not support onerous and expensive “solutions” that actually make things worse. We fully support the changes Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson recently announced, including steps to strengthen passport security and augment our use of air marshals on incoming overseas flights. We have supported proposals to increase pre-clearance and immigration advisory programs; to work with other governments to strengthen their watch lists and vetting systems; to expand U.S. Customs and Border Protections’ Global Entry program to enroll more rigorously screened, trusted travelers; and to target screening for visitors who recently have traveled to countries of law enforcement concern or for certain dual-passport holders. The travel industry will always seek to bring our practical experience to the table as a resource to policymakers when considering these types of changes.
We understand the need for political decisiveness when faced with threats from abroad. But on matters so crucial to national and economic security, Congress must resist over-reaction. This is a time for calm, serious deliberation informed by security experts who overwhelmingly extol the benefits of the Visa Waiver Program. Now more than ever, it is essential that the national security debate remains substantive, without devolving into political theater.