Visa Waivers: Ready or Not, Here They Come

By Jessica M. Vaughan on September 23, 2008

A new GAO report sharply criticizes the Dept. of Homeland Security for its reckless disregard of legitimate security and law enforcement concerns and standard operating procedures in pressing forward to offer visa waivers to visitors from at least nine new countries, mostly in Eastern Europe. These concerns were first raised in a Senate Judiciary hearing earlier this year on February 28, at which I testified and will be discussed again at another Senate hearing tomorrow. Expansion of this program beyond the few clearly qualified countries is sure to encourage more illegal immigration and facilitate entry for terrorists and criminals.

Last year, Congress agreed to give DHS more “flexibility” to expand the visa waiver program (VWP). DHS and the travel industry have been frustrated that the State Dept. (the lead agency on visa and foreign policy issues) hasn’t seen fit to suggest admitting more than one new country (Greece) in the last several years. By law, and for good reason, the VWP is limited to those countries where at least 97% of the applicants qualify for visas. These are countries where the quality of life is such that citizens have little incentive to settle here as illegal immigrants, and which meet certain security thresholds.

Congress agreed to let DHS open up the VWP to countries where fewer prospective travelers qualify for visas, but imposed some conditions, to help mitigate the inherent risk in the program: 1) demonstrate that it can verify that at least 97% of foreign visitors who travel by air are actually departing; 2) implement a new pre-arrival electronic passenger screening system to help flag travelers who might pose a security risk; and 3) several other security enhancements.

According to the GAO report, DHS has not met either of the two main conditions, but is proceeding to expand the VWP anyway. The agency has tried to fool Congress with a transparently dubious way of accounting for departures. It can’t show that 97% of air travelers are departing using the obvious methodology – recording visitor arrivals, and then matching them to subsequent departures to see who hasn’t left. So it concocted a new method; in order to achieve the 97% compliance rate, DHS is matching new departure records to any previous arrivals, departures or changes of status by the traveler. Of course, this method tells us nothing about current levels of visa compliance.

GAO also says the agency faces steep challenges in implementing the electronic pre-screening system known as ESTA.

In addition the report points out DHS’ continued failure to devise a way to estimate of the number of foreign visitors who overstay and become illegal immigrants. This information is vital to evaluate our visa issuance policies and to assist with immigration law enforcement. It would provide a clearer indication of which countries are good bets for the VWP. DHS has the tools to make reasonable estimates, but doesn’t seem to want to know.

A group of key Senators now has some serious buyer’s remorse over having given DHS the “flexibility” it wanted, and DHS management has some serious credibility problems with Congressional overseers.