Should the U.S. abandon the visa waiver program?

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating foreign countries to enter the U.S. without a visa for 90 days. In exchange for this benefit, participating countries agree to information-sharing and security cooperation with the U.S., along with reciprocal travel privileges for U.S. citizens.

The rise of ISIS has created a heightened threat of foreign terrorists entering the U.S. from European countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program. Accordingly, some members of Congress are talking about ending the program.

Yesterday the Heritage Foundation took up this question. You can watch the program here.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff argued that ending the VWP would be a serious mistake. Doing so, he contended, would actually deprive us of information the use of which enhances our ability to keep terrorists out of the country. It would also hurt the U.S. economically due the resulting decline in tourism, and would set back our diplomatic relations with Eastern European nations at a time when we need to present Putin’s Russia with a unified alliance.

Economic and diplomatic considerations are important, of course. But the overriding issue is whether abandoning the Visa Waiver Program would make us safer.

In answering this question, it’s important to remember that under the VWP, we obtain plenty of information about foreigners entering the U.S. Applicants must go online and answer complete a questionnaire. This provides us with advance information about who is coming in. And that information can be checked against data obtained from the country of origin through the information-sharing that occurs thanks to the VWP.

What is lost by waiving the visa requirement? Essentially, it’s the face-to-face interview.

Face-to-face interviews are not without value. However, as David Inserra of the Heritage Foundation pointed out, they are often perfunctory. And, of course, they will become more perfunctory if we end the VWP and attempt to conduct face-to-face interviews with everyone who wants to enter the U.S. Indeed, Inserra and Stewart Baker (former Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security) agreed that we would be unable to conduct face-to-face interviews on that scale.

The gains achieved through the increase in face-to-face interviews that would accompany an end of the VWP must be weighed against the loss of information-sharing and other cooperation that would also result. European nations are not eager to provide the U.S. with information about their citizens. Our gains in this area have been hard-won.

Cooperation and information-sharing with foreign governments would not end if the VWP were abandoned. But they would likely decrease significantly due to a combination of resentment, inertia, and privacy concerns.

Chertoff, Baker, and Inserra have each concluded that the loss of information and cooperation from foreign governments would outweigh the gains from more face-to-face interviews. They make a strong case. Perhaps someone with standing and knowledge comparable to our former Secretary of DHS can persuasively argue the other side. If not, we would be well-advised to retain the VWP while looking for ways to improve it.