The Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows foreigners from certain countries to enter the United States without a visa for less than 90 days, has grown from a pilot program helping the tourism industry and strengthening diplomatic relations to one of the most important programs affecting US security and the US economy. According to the US Travel Association, VWP travelers spent more than US $51 billion in the United States in 2008. This spending generated 512,000 jobs, US $13 billion in payroll and US $7.8 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. The VWP has enabled the travel industry to become an important component in the national effort to rebuild the struggling US economy.
Of course, the program has faced significant challenges, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when US immigration policy began to take a more hardline approach to address perceived gaps in US homeland security. The program survived those challenges by implementing significant security enhancements.
A decade after 9/11, the VWP must now evolve further to ensure that its security contributions and economic impacts are maximized. These changes require that the Executive Branch, Congress, and US public assess the delicate balance of economic growth, diplomatic relations, and national security inherent in international travel. Such an assessment, we believe, should result in the expansion of the program to additional countries, with new security requirements in place to reflect all three of these national interests.
The history of the Visa Waiver Program can essentially be divided into three eras: facilitation (from 1988 until 9/11/2001), survival (9/11/2001 until 2006), and strengthening (2006 to present). In each phase, political forces concerned with three different but overlapping issues--economic security, terrorism, and immigration--have battled to mold the VWP, with different outcomes during each phase.
Establishment: Doors Open for Visitors
The VWP was originally created in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It was conceived as a pilot program to help the Department of State meet increasing demand for visas from countries with a low risk of immigration violations and with whom we maintained solid law enforcement and foreign policy relationships. The program quickly became a major priority for the travel industry, which saw it as a way to simplify travel to the United States. In the Immigration Act of 1990, Congress set aside the initial limit of eight countries. Congress continued to fiddle with the eligibility criteria and the methods by which countries could be placed on probationary status or removed from the program for failing to meet the program's criteria, including provisions in the sweeping Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.
The original pilot program had been extended by Congress several times and once by the Executive Branch through an internal directive by the then-Immigration 8z Naturalization Service. The program was finally made permanent in 2000 in the Visa Waiver Permanent Program Act. By this point, the following 29 countries had qualified for the VWP: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.
The permanency law of 2000 also established the program criteria that were in effect when terrorists struck the United States on September 11, 2001. In order to qualify for the program, applicant countries were required to have a visa refusal rate of 3 percent or less, have machine-readable passports, and allow applicants to be checked against lookout systems. In addition, participating countries were required to undergo evaluations not less than once every five years. …