Visa waiver amendment approved by U.S. Senate

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The U.S. Senate approved an amendment to a pending security bill (S. 4) that would permit additional countries to qualify for participation in the Visa Waiver Program.

Nineteen countries are seeking entry into the program, which allows travelers to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. In exchange, participating countries extend the same privilege to travelers from the U.S. Twenty-seven nations already participate.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), would relax a key criteria under which countries qualify for the program, the so-called "visa refusal rate." Under the existing policy, countries can be admitted to the program if U.S. consular offices are rejecting fewer than 3% of the nonimmigrant visa applications filed by citizens of that country. Feinstein's bill would increase that limit to 10%.

The amendment also would require the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, in concert with Congress, to establish new criteria to gauge overstays, or foreign visitors who do not return home once their visa has expired.

The original security bill proposed expanding the Visa Waiver Program but didn't set specific refusal or overstay rates for determining participation.

The security bill, referred to as the Implementing Unfinished Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, calls for the development of an air exit system that would crosscheck whether arriving visitors have departed.

The travel industry generally favors expanding the Visa Waiver Program, and several industry lobby groups were quick to voice support for the amendment.

Bill Connors, COO of the National Business Travel Association, said, "This measure will potentially expand the healthy conduct of commerce between our country and its key trading partners."

The Discover America Partnership, a group advocating inbound tourism, said the amendment is a "reasonable approach to simultaneously strengthening America's security and expanding access to the country for millions of legitimate international travelers."

Still, the Visa Waiver Program has been the subject of scrutiny due to concerns that it could permit terrorists to enter the U.S. undetected.

Feinstein has acknowledged that during the first half of 2005, the Department of Homeland Security confiscated nearly 300 fraudulent or altered passports issued by Visa Waiver Program countries.

About 15 million travelers visit the U.S. each year from visa waiver countries, which in turn are visited by tens of millions of U.S. travelers who are not required to get visas.

The participating countries are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K.

Seeking entry are Brazil, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Taiwan and Turkey.

Argentina and Uruguay, previously removed from the Visa Waiver Program for not meeting certain criteria, are seeking re-entry.  

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

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