GAO: Scrapping visa program at State could hurt more than help

Eliminating the State Department's visa waiver program would not necessarily improve national security and could stretch the agency's resources thin, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress, the Bush administration and law enforcement officials expressed fears that terrorists might exploit the program, which allows citizens of 28 countries to enter the country and stay for up to 90 days for vacation or business without a visa.

But officials from the State and Justice departments interviewed by GAO from February to August had mixed opinions on whether or not eliminating the visa waiver program would actually enhance security.

"Anecdotal information indicates that [potential terrorists] have entered the United States under the Visa Waiver Program as well as with valid U.S. visas," making it hard to tell if the program poses any more of a security threat than the regular system for issuing visas, the report (GAO-03-38) said. Officials also had a hard time determining whether the program is a security threat because the government has not systematically gathered data on how often potential terrorists have entered the United States under the program.

The report also predicted that the State Department would need more resources to handle the ensuing increase in visa processing if the visa waiver program ended. The department would need to hire additional personnel and build more overseas facilities to handle the heavier workload, GAO said. State officials told GAO that it would take two to four years to put all the necessary employees in place.

State Department officials estimated that the number of visa applications would rise by 14 million each year without the waiver program. And initial costs to process these extra visa applications could be anywhere from $739 million to $1.28 billion, with annual costs of $522 million to $810 million in the future.

The visa waiver program, created in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, was intended to make travel easier and save the government time and money. More than 48 million visitors have entered the United States over the past three years under visa waivers, according to INS data.

The majority of countries participating in the program are in Europe, but other participants include Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Brunei and Uruguay. The attorney general's office took Argentina out of the program in February because of concerns that its economic crisis would tempt more of its citizens to try to immigrate to the United States illegally.

To address concerns that potential terrorists would try to enter the country on visa waivers, the Justice and State departments tightened the eligibility requirements after Sept. 11 for nations participating in the program. The departments have always verified all participating nations' political and economic stability, and checked to make sure they had secure passport issuing processes. But the 2001 USA Patriot Act and the 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act outlined additional, more stringent requirements, including mandates for participating nations to include biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints, on passports and for a system to monitor visitors' movements into and out of the United States.

While eliminating the program entirely would be one way to fix any remaining loopholes in security, it could also have repercussions on international relations and tourism, according to the GAO report.

For instance, some U.S. embassy officials expressed concern that eliminating the program would "lesson countries' cooperation in military and law enforcement operations related to the global coalition against terrorism." Some of the countries participating in the program have helped the United States freeze potential terrorists' assets and lent military support to "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan.

In addition, officials told GAO that program participants might retaliate by starting to require Americans to obtain visas to enter their countries.

And fewer tourists would visit the United States if the program ended, the report said. Eliminating the program could result in a loss of 3 million visitors, $28 billion in tourism exports and 475,000 jobs over a five-year period, according to a 2002 Commerce Department study.

State and Justice department officials agreed with the report.

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