Process for Admitting Additional Countries into the Visa Waiver Program

GAO-06-835R: Published: Jul 28, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 5, 2006.

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The Visa Waiver Program enables citizens of 27 participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa. The program was created to promote the effective use of government resources and to facilitate international travel without jeopardizing U.S. national security. Indeed, in fiscal year 2004, more than 15 million travelers entered the United States under this program. The United States last expanded the Visa Waiver Program's membership in 1999 with the addition of Portugal, Singapore, and Uruguay; in recent years, other countries have expressed a desire to become members. In addition, Members of Congress have recently introduced bills calling for the expansion of the program. In February 2005, President Bush announced that the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and State (State) would develop a strategy, or "Road Map Initiative," to clarify to prospective candidates the statutory requirements for designation as a participating country--and work with countries to help them comply with these requirements. In response to a Congressional request, this report describes (1) the process for gaining admission into the Visa Waiver Program and (2) the U.S. government's plans for admitting additional countries into the program. To examine the criteria for expanding the Visa Waiver Program, we reviewed laws establishing the program, agency protocols governing the program, and DHS's Office of Inspector General reports. In addition, we reviewed relevant documentation and interviewed DHS and Consular Affairs Bureau officials in Washington, D.C., to determine the status of the President's initiative.

DHS is drafting procedures to help guide the process by which additional countries are admitted into the Visa Waiver Program. Until these procedures are finalized, DHS and State have an interim process. Specifically, under this interim process, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, may designate any country as being a member of the Visa Wavier Program if that country qualifies under the program's statutory requirements. First, State advises DHS of its intent to nominate a country for inclusion in the program only after State has determined that the country meets key criteria for visa waiver designation. Then, according to DHS, the departments may agree to engage in a pre-nomination consultation process to ensure that all parties are in agreement before State submits its formal nomination. After receiving State's formal nomination, DHS, through an interagency working group, evaluates the effect that the country's designation would have on the law enforcement, security, and immigration interests of the United States. On the basis of the review, the interagency working group submits a recommendation to the Secretary of Homeland Security, who, in consultation with the Secretary of State, decides whether to admit the country into the program. Separately, on May 1 of each year, State must report, to Congress, those countries that are under consideration for inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program. The U.S. government has taken steps to assist countries seeking membership in the Visa Waiver Program. In February 2005, President Bush announced that the United States would develop bilateral strategies with 13 "Road Map" countries that are seeking admission into the Visa Waiver Program. In particular, DHS and State are working with these countries to make sure they understand the program's statutory requirements, and to agree on steps to help these countries meet the criteria. In 2005, State tasked U.S. embassies in aspiring countries to form working groups with the host governments to discuss the Road Map process. According to DHS, these groups met to develop plans that specify the actions that each country may need to take to be considered for program membership. For example, several countries agreed to launch public affairs campaigns to inform their citizens about the program's requirements. The plans also include actions that the embassies have agreed to take, such as providing technical assistance on statutory requirements. To further clarify the initiative's objectives, in May 2006, DHS and State jointly issued a series of cables to posts in Road Map countries with guidance on the types of issues that should be discussed in the bilateral working groups. As of June 2006, DHS and State have approved frameworks, (or road maps) for seven countries: Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and South Korea. However, according to DHS and State's Consular Affairs Bureau, it is unlikely that many of the new countries will meet the statutory requirements for designation to the program in the near future. State did not submit a report to Congress on May 1, 2006, indicating that it was considering new members, and Consular Affairs Bureau officials stated that they are not actively considering expanding program membership or nominating specific countries for possible visa waiver designation.

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