Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Program: A Bad Idea for a Needy Territory

By David North on January 15, 2019

The Democratic delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Stacey Plaskett, has just introduced a bit of legislation that would create yet another Visa Waiver Program — visas would not be required for people from other Caribbean islands wanting to be tourists in the territory.

I have a special place in my heart for these troubled islands; for years I was the volunteer Washington correspondent for VI Source, a news site there. Further, the islands were mauled by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year, and got even less help from our government than Puerto Rico did. Finally, I had pleasant dealings there during my stint with the Office of Insular Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior, and have visited two of the three main islands.

So I have every reason to wish them well, but Plaskett's idea is not a good one.

Admittedly, there is a precedent on the other side of the globe, the Visa Waiver Program for the U.S. islands in the far western Pacific: Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which has, in fact, increased the tourist traffic in those islands. This is particularly useful for the Marianas, as it, unlike Guam, is not host to well-funded U.S. military installations.

But there are huge differences between the situations in the Pacific and in the Caribbean.

A glance at the globe will show that Guam and CNMI have a major geographical advantage; they are the nearest tropical islands to such cold places as Russia's Siberia, northern China, and Japan. This visa waiver program brings many from the first two listed places to our islands.

On the other hand, the delegate's bill would facilitate tourist visits by people who already live on tropical islands. Why head for the U.S. Virgin Islands if you already live in a place with nice beaches and warm weather?

The potential problem, as I see it, is that such a program (which includes Haiti, 14 other island nations, and five jurisdictions that are still colonies) would quickly be overrun by Haitians, desperate to get out of their country. They would be assuming that they could move on from the USVI to the U.S. Mainland. There would also be similar, but smaller flows from some of the other nations and colonies, none of which is very prosperous.

Many of these new arrivals, wanting to continue to the Mainland, would soon be thwarted at the airports on St. Thomas and St. Croix, as both have tight exit control systems for flights to the States. A lot of people don't know that, or think that they can outwit that system.

The USVI cannot afford what I regard as the inevitable consequences of this bill.