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Hearing of the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement - Visa Waive Program: Risks and Benefits of the Program


Location: Washington, DC

While the Visa Waiver Program is a popular diplomatic tool, it is, unfortunately, a flawed program. Before it is expanded, the program should be re-examined to ensure that any national security concerns are addressed and resolved.

Under the VWP, nationals of designated countries -- there are currently 36 -- are allowed to enter the United States without a travel visa.

Since its creation, the VWP has been rightfully criticized on national security grounds. Those concerns have been validated over the years when individuals such as the suspected 20th September 11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui came to the U.S. as a French national under VWP and when Richard Reid boarded American Airlines Flight 63 en-route from Paris, France, to Miami, FL, with a British passport, and attempted to light a bomb that was hidden in his shoe.

Congress has acknowledged these security concerns several times and added security-related requirements to the program in the 2002 Visa Waiver Permanent Program Act, the USA-PATRIOT Act and most recently in the 2007 Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act.

But even with the changes, the VWP is still the subject of significant security risks, both inherently and due to a lack of follow-up to ensure the countries become or remain compliant with the program's requirements.

A May 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that only "[H]alf of the countries have entered into agreements to share watchlist information about known or suspected terrorists and to provide access to biographical, biometric, and criminal history data." Such an agreement is a requirement of the program.

And Congress required the Department of Homeland Security to issue biennial reports regarding the security risks associated with a country's VWP status. But the GAO found that DHS has not completed the latest biennial reports for 18 of the 36 VWP countries in a timely manner.

Unfortunately this criticism is not new to the Visa Waiver Program. A 2004 DHS Inspector General report found that the agency was "unable to comply with the mandate to conduct "country reviews' of each VWP designated country every two years to determine whether that country shall be continued in the program."

And a 2008 GAO report concluded that "DHS has not fully developed tools to assess and mitigate risks in the Visa Waiver Program."

So DHS consistently ignores congressional mandates regarding the VWP and cannot keep up with the demands for the 36 countries that are currently in the program. These failures need to be addressed before we encourage the expansion of the Visa Waiver Program.

This subcommittee has a significant interest in protecting Americans and ensuring that the VWP is not a national security risk.

The United States shares a close friendship with many of the Visa Waiver Program countries, and with many countries that would like to be designated for the program. However, legislation and policies that can compromise our national security should be carefully scrutinized by Congress.

Before I close, I know that one of the witnesses, Rich Stana from GAO, is retiring and this will be his last time testifying before Congress. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Stana for his years of service. He has been testifying in front of this subcommittee on immigration-related issues since 1997. We have greatly benefitted from his expertise and we all wish him well in his retirement.

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