Even as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it
would tighten air travel requirements on foreign countries, a bill in the U.S.
House that would pave the way for the citizens of more countries to be exempt
from U.S. travel visa requirements was closing in on 100 co-sponsors.
As of the end of July, the Jobs Originated Through Launching
Travel Act, or JOLT, had 87 co-sponsors, split between 47 Democrats and 40
“It’s one of those bills that if we were to put it on the
floor for a vote right now, we feel it would pass,” said Greg Lemon, the
communications director for Rep. Joe Heck, the Las Vegas-area Republican who
sponsored the bill along with Chicago-area Democrat Mike Quigley.
JOLT would give the DHS secretary a measure of leeway in
decisions about expanding the Visa Waiver Program. At present, 38 countries,
most of them in Europe, are on the visa waiver list. Among the nations that
travel industry advocates would like to see added to the program are Brazil,
Poland, Israel and Croatia.
Under current law, a country can join the program only if
fewer than 3% of its citizens who apply for U.S. visas are refused. JOLT would
allow the DHS secretary to admit to the Visa Waiver Program countries that have
refusal rates as high as 10%.
The bill would also enhance security requirements for
countries participating in the program, including requiring the issuance of
electronic passports that make use of biometric recognition technologies.
Last week, the DHS, citing threats by militants, said it would
henceforth require Visa Waiver countries to allow more American air marshals on
flights to the U.S. and to use passports that have electronic chips and rely on
fingerprints or other biometric identifiers.
Roger Dow, the CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, a key
backer of the bill, said last week that he saw no conflict between JOLT and the
DHS actions to tighten the waiver program.
“This slate of policy adjustments are a reminder that the
[Visa Waiver Program] is first and foremost a security instrument and that an
already-successful program can and should continue to evolve to make the
country even stronger,” Dow said in a statement.
The House bill, if passed, would rename the Visa Waiver
Program a more marketable Secure Travel Partnership Program.
The U.S. denies tourist visas for various security reasons,
including failure to pass a criminal background check. But refusals are most
commonly tied to concerns that an individual will remain in the country
illegally after the 90-day visa expires.
In 2014, Brazil, Poland, Israel and Croatia had refusal
rates greater than 3%, according to preliminary State Department data. But
applicants in those countries also experienced significantly lower refusal
rates than individuals in the visa waiver countries of Germany, France and
Great Britain who registered to visit the U.S. through the Electronic System
for Travel Authorization (ESTA), the automated platform that the U.S. uses to
check the backgrounds of residents of Visa Waiver Program countries.
Being able to register for short-term U.S entry through
ESTA, rather than having to go through an in-person consulate interview,
streamlines the visa process. U.S. Travel estimates that adding just Brazil to
the program would have brought 650,000 more visitors to the U.S. this year and
added $7.6 billion to the economy.
This Congressional session marks the third in a row in which
Heck and Quigley have filed the JOLT bill. During the session that ended in
2014, the bill garnered 166 House co-sponsors but never got a committee
hearing. A companion bill last session in the U.S. Senate was incorporated into
the immigration reform bill that the Senate passed, but the House failed to
pass an immigration reform bill.
A Senate companion has yet to be filed this session, which
ends in the fall of 2016, but Patricia Rojas-Ungar, U.S. Travel’s vice
president for government affairs, said the organization expects to find a
Senate sponsor by the end of the year.
In the meantime, less comprehensive measures are being put
A bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) would
expand the program but would not include a JOLT provision to ease restrictions
on Canadians over age 50 who want to stay in the U.S. for up to eight months
In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee amended the DHS
appropriations bill to include a measure that would add Poland to the Visa
Waiver Program. And that same month, President Obama and Brazil President Dilma
Rousseff pledged to work toward visa-free travel between the two countries.
Rojas-Ungar said the reason JOLT didn’t make progress in the
House earlier is that it became conflated with the immigration debate. U.S.
Travel’s strategy this time around is to persuade the House Judiciary
Committee, which hears DHS issues, to move it forward as a separate bill.
“The Judiciary Committee is going to have to take actions on
some things related to travel and immigration, and ours is really the least
controversial, so we hope they’ll take it up,” Rojas-Ungar said.
But while she argues that the Visa Waiver Program doesn’t
relate to immigration, not everybody sees it that way.
Since 2008, the majority of new illegal immigrants in the
U.S. have arrived legally using a temporary visa, according to the Center for
Migration Studies, a New York-based think tank dedicated to supporting the
rights of immigrants.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for
Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports tighter immigration
controls, said JOLT should not be passed until the U.S. implements an
electronic exit-tracking program to monitor visa overstays.