U.S. Senators Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) today introduced the Visa Waiver Program Enhanced Security and Reform Act. The bipartisan bill encourages travel and tourism to the United States which creates and sustains jobs. At the same time, the bill updates the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) framework to reflect improved capabilities to track travelers entering the United States and improves annual reporting to increase oversight and transparency. Both Senators have long been advocates for enhancing the VWP. The Senate bill is cosponsored by Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Companion legislation is led by Representative Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"Improving the Visa Waiver Program will create and sustain American jobs. It strengthens our alliances, enhances our security, and allows millions to visit the United States and spend their money here," Senator Mikulski said. "A grandmother from Gdansk shouldn't need a visa to visit her grandkids in Baltimore. I've fought for years to ensure that we expand this important program in a way that keeps our borders secure while allowing travelers who want nothing other than to see family, conduct business, or tour our great country to do so without going through a long and expensive process. This bill updates the Visa Waiver Program so that our State Department may direct limited consular resources where they are needed most to keep our country safe and secure."
"In Poland last month, Senator Kirk outlined his goal of adding Poland to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)," said a spokesperson for Senator Kirk. "Poland is a strong ally of the United States, plays a critical role in NATO military operations in Europe and the Middle East and its citizens should be afforded the right of visa-free travel to this country. Senator Kirk is eager to work with Sens. Mikulski and Cardin and Reps. Quigley and Chabot on this effort and looks forward to passing this bicameral, bipartisan legislation to include Poland into the VWP."
"I am pleased that this bill will promote tourism in the United States and that it will enable our steadfast ally, Poland, to enter the Visa Waiver Program," said Senator Cardin. "Since the very beginning of our nation's history, Poland has always been a friend we could rely upon. From the American Revolution to the NATO mission, Polish troops have stood alongside our own in the fight for freedom and against global extremism. This bill will make it easier for many family members of Maryland's proud Polish-American community to visit our country."
"Modernizing the Visa Waiver Program will strengthen our national security and enhance international relationships with important allies like Poland, who have been denied visa-free travel because of an outdated regime," said Rep. Quigley. "I hope this bill will move quickly through Congress and to the President's desk, opening the doors for Poland once and for all."
The Visa Waiver Program Enhanced Security and Reform Act would require applicant countries to maintain an average non-immigrant visa overstay rate not greater than 3 percent while giving the Secretary of Homeland Security flexibility to waive this requirement in cases where a country's participation does not pose a threat to law enforcement, security, or immigration laws under the condition that the applicant country is cooperating fully with the U.S. in fighting terrorism. It would authorize the Secretary to place a member country on probation if their overstay rate exceeds 3 percent, sending a strong message to current program members that the United States is serious about ensuring the VWP is a strong component of our security.
The Mikulski-Kirk bill requires the applicant country to have a visa refusal rate not greater than 3 percent at the time of application into the VWP to ensure a mutual exchange with the United States. It authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to include countries into the program if they meet all United States security standards and have a refusal rate below 10 percent, based on the total number of individual applicants.
President Obama publically endorsed the bill during its previous introduction last May and reaffirmed his support during a trip to Poland [View President Obama's letter]. Earlier this month, the President spoke on the importance of expanding the VWP in an effort to strengthen America's tourism economy by creating and sustaining jobs. The bill has the support of the US Travel Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the National Retail Federation.
Currently, citizens of 36 nations around the world are eligible to participate in the VWP, which allows foreign visitors to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. Outdated requirements exclude Poland, a strong democratic ally, from the VWP despite allowing U.S. tourists to travel visa-free since 1991.