URGING THE ADMINISTRATION AND CONGRESS TO INCREASE EFFORTS AND SUPPORT FOR TIMELY EXPANSION OF THE U.S. VISA WAIVER PROGRAM
WHEREAS, travel and tourism is one of America’s largest and most important economic industries contributing an expected $740 billion in direct expenditures, $109 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue, $177 billion in payroll and $7.5 million indirect travel jobs; and
WHEREAS, since 9/11, America has suffered a significant loss of long-haul/overseas visitors (long-haul excludes visitors from Canada and Mexico) and has become increasingly perceived abroad as an unfriendly and unwelcoming destination.
WHEREAS, from 2000 to 2007, there has been a worldwide increase in long-haul travel of 35 million, while over that same period, the U.S. saw 2 million fewer overseas visitors; and
WHEREAS, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), established by Congress in 1986, permits business and leisure travelers from 27 selected countries to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without the expense and delay of obtaining a non-immigrant visitor visa.
WHEREAS, the program was intended to facilitate and promote overseas travel to the U.S. while simultaneously allowing the State Department to shift visa screening resources to higher-risk countries; and
WHEREAS, the following 27 countries currently participate in the VWP: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and United Kingdom; and
WHEREAS, in 2006, approximately 14 million overseas visitors arriving in the U.S. originated from one of the 27 VWP countries, representing approximately two-thirds of all overseas visitors; and
WHEREAS, in August 2007, President Bush signed into law legislation that authorized the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to reform the VWP by strengthening the security arrangements required of participant countries, as well as to expand the conditions for additional countries to join the program; and
WHEREAS, the biggest challenge to joining the VWP for aspiring countries is a country’s visa “refusal rate, ” or the annual percent of visa applications rejected by the U.S. Department of State. The reformed VWP allows the Secretary of DHS to waive the visa refusal rate threshold from 3 to 10 percent if certain security requirements are met by aspiring countries; and
WHEREAS, the U.S. has signed a Visa Waiver Program Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) this year with eight aspiring Visa Waiver Program countries that currently meet the new visa refusal rate threshold, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta and South Korea and each country has agreed to the meeting the new security requirements; and
WHEREAS, required follow-up procedures in the MOU include the introduction of electronic passports for citizens; setting up a traveler information sharing system between the two governments;and establishment of the U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which requires citizens of aspiring Visa Waiver Program countries to submit biographical and other security-related information to U.S. authorities in advance of travel and also commits these countries and the U.S. to conduct a joint outreach campaign to inform foreign citizens of their obligation to use the ESTA system. However, the U.S. currently lacks an effective communications strategy to carry out this aspect of the MOU; and
WHEREAS, South Korea is one of America’s closest allies and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In April 2007, the U.S. and South Korea signed the KORUS FTA, a free-trade agreement that boosts economic ties between the two countries creating the third-largest free-trade area after the EU and NAFTA; and
WHEREAS, providing Visa Waiver Program status to South Korea represents an incredible economic opportunity for the United States. Canada lifted its visa restriction for South Korea in 1994, and in two years, Korean arrivals jumped 79 percent; and
WHEREAS, in 2007, there were 13.3 million Korean outbound travelers representing 28 percent of its 48 million total population and 52 percent of these travelers traveled more than once a year at an average per capita spending overseas of $1, 576 and of the 13.3 million South Korean outbound travelers in 2007, only 806, 175 visited the U.S. Travelers were deterred in large part by the U.S. visa process which requires a $131 visaapplication fee and an in-person interview at a single U.S. Embassy location in Seoul; and
WHEREAS, if South Korea joins the VWP, the U.S. could expect at least 1.45 million visitors in the first year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, boosting the American economy and helping to reverse the drastic decline in overseas travel to the U.S.; and
WHEREAS, under US-VISIT (U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology), a post-9/11 program designed to keep track of visitors to the U.S., DHS agents have used biometric fingerprinting to identify nearly 100 million people entering the country by air or sea since January 2004. The VWP reforms set a June 30, 2009 congressional deadline to fingerprint visitors departing the U.S. by air in order to maintain the expanded visa refusal rate waiver authority; and
WHEREAS, on April 22, 2008, DHS announced a controversial proposed rule to establish biometric exit procedures at all U.S. air and sea ports of departure that would require airlines andcruise ship operators to collect the biometric fingerprints andtransmit them to DHS within 24 hours of their passengers' departure, and which DHS intends to implement by January 2009; and
WHEREAS, an effective air exit system is important to America’s security, a critical element of a credible immigration system and a requisite for a secure and expanded Visa Waiver Program. The primary purposes of an air exit system – to enforce compliance with U.S. immigration laws and to serve as a counterterrorism tool – are inherently governmental responsibilities; and
WHEREAS, timely execution of an air exit system that is supported by the government, the aviation community and the travel industry is needed to ensure that the June 30, 2009 deadline is met. Failure to meet this deadline will result in delays or halt the expansion of the VWP for all aspiring countries including South Korea.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the U.S. Conference of Mayors urges the Congress, the Administration and the DHS to work cooperatively to quickly develop and implement the new security systems necessary to allow the continued expansion of the Visa Waiver Program for aspiring countries that meet admission requirements, such as South Korea.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that USCM urges the federal government to increase staffing for U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers at air, land and sea ports of entry.