Senators Aren't So Sure About Visa Waivers, But Chertoff Calls Program 'Essential'

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WASHINGTON – A former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security told lawmakers the visa waiver program is necessary to ensure that the U.S. continues to benefit from legitimate international travel and trade.

Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, Michael Chertoff said the program is “essential to protecting international travel in today’s growing and persistent threat environment.”

“It provides necessary information to identify and validate a person’s identity, determine if they are a risk, and whether they pose a threat to the United States,” Chertoff said.

The program, he said, further prevents harmful or threatening persons from crossing the borders.

“There are certainly many significant benefits to the U.S. by having the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in effect. However, we must be clear that security remains at the top. There is no random decision making in place or lack of attention when it comes to authorizing a VWP citizen to travel to the U.S.”

The Visa Waiver Program is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and enables eligible citizens or nationals from designated countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa. Citizens from 38 countries – generally highly developed nations – are eligible for visa-free entry.

Under program regulations a waiver can be withdrawn at any time. That usually occurs if residents of a particular country are considered likely to violate the rules, such as working without a permit or overstaying the designated time period. Argentina’s participation was terminated in 2002 as the result of fears of a mass exodus in the wake of a financial crisis. Uruguay’s involvement ended the following year because of similar concerns.

Travel under the VWP is restricted to travelers possessing passports with specified security features. All VWP travelers must have a machine-readable passport.

The Congressional Research Service found that 19.1 million visitors entered the United States under the VWP during the 2012 fiscal year, representing 40 percent of all foreign travelers.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the committee chairman, acknowledged the program “serves as an important economic tool for the United States, promoting tourism, trade and investment.”

But Johnson added that recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen, as well as the more than 3,400 western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, “remind us of the importance of constantly assessing trusted traveler programs to address potential vulnerabilities.”

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the agency is taking steps to address potential weaknesses in the VWP’s structure. Ron Johnson said he and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) sent a letter to Johnson asking that the department perform an evaluation of the security safeguards.

“We should work diligently with our foreign partners to continually refine the program to ensure full compliance with membership requirements and ensure VWP travelers are fully vetted,” Jeh Johnson said. “Doing so will ensure that the VWP will remain a viable trusted traveler.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the panel’s ranking member, expressed concern that “the threats that we face from terrorists have evolved during the life of the Visa Waiver Program.”

“Today, we face the threat posed by ISIS and its determination to use social media to rally recruits and incite attacks against the West, including attacks by individuals who live in Visa Waiver countries,” Carper said. “Moreover, conflicts in Syria and Iraq have attracted thousands of foreign fighters from all across the world who have now joined the ranks of those who wish to do us harm here at home. According to reports, more than 3,400 foreign fighters have traveled from western countries to join in these conflicts. Many of these countries have Visa Waiver privileges with the U.S.”

Balancing the Natural Tension of the Visa Waiver Program 

Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, Carper said, have worked hard to balance the natural tension in the Visa Waiver Program between the need to facilitate international travel and the need to keep Americans safe from evolving terrorist threats. It is more than just a revenue generator.

“It also serves as an important national security tool for the United States,” he said. “When countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program, they must implement and maintain strong travel screening measures. More importantly, these countries must share robust amounts of traveler information with the United States – information that we would likely not otherwise get. This valuable information has proven to be essential to our counter terrorism officials as they seek to prevent foreign threats from crossing our borders.”

Chertoff, the second secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said that, properly constructed, VWP can “powerfully reduce vulnerabilities in our immigration and travel system.”

“It is my belief that the Visa Waiver Program offers significant benefits to U.S. national and economic security and should not be pulled back in a time like this but further evaluated for ways that can strengthen our security and the benefits it may yield,” he said.

Mark Koumans, deputy assistant secretary for international affairs in the Department of Homeland Security, told the panel that the agency “uses mutually reinforcing layers at all points in the travel continuum to secure VWP travel to the United States.”

“The DHS security posture is flexible and will continue to evolve as threats warrant and environments change,” he said. “The VWP and all its elements are a vital part of a robust travel security system” that includes:

  • The Electronic System for Travel Authorization
  • Mandatory information sharing on potential terrorists and criminals
  • Sharing of lost and stolen passport data and inspections of VWP countries’ airport
  • Border control
  • Identity and travel document security standards.

The department and many of the countries that qualify under VWP “consider and respond to the new and evolving threat posed to us by foreign fighters traveling to or from the battlefield,” Koumans said. “DHS and all VWP countries have a joint stake in identifying foreign fighters due to common security interests. DHS will continue to work with our interagency partners, international partners, and industry partners to address emerging threats and identify potential security vulnerabilities.  DHS is committed to facilitating legitimate trade and travel while maintaining the highest standards of security and border protection.”