Senate OKs amendment that would expand Visa Waiver Program

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The Senate has approved an amendment to a pending security bill that would permit additional countries to qualify for participation in the Visa Waiver Program by increasing the visa refusal rate level, a key criteria for participating in the program.

At least 19 countries, such as South Korea, Turkey and Argentina, are seeking entry into the program, which allows travelers from qualifying countries to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. Participating countries then extend the same privilege to travelers from the U.S.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), would increase the visa refusal rate from 3% to 10%. The refusal rate relates to the percentage of individuals who apply for and receive U.S. visas.

The amendment also would require the Dept. of Homeland Security and the State Dept., in concert with Congress, to establish new standards to gauge overstays, or foreign visitors who do not return home once their visitor visas have expired, another key criteria for inclusion in the program.

The security bill, referred to as Implementing Unfinished Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, proposed expanding the Visa Waiver Program, but didnt set specific refusal or overstay rates for determining participation.

It does, however, call for the development of exit system that would cross-check whether visitors arriving by air later depart.

The Bush administration, as well as the travel industry, supports expanding the program.

Currently, 27 countries 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 the U.K.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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