The Visa Waiver Program and the Screening of Potential Terrorists
Monday, June 21, 2004
Dear Mr. Chairman:
Please accept this as a submission for the written record of the June 16th hearing on The Visa Waiver Program and the Screening of Potential Terrorists.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform has long been concerned that the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) endangers U.S. national security. The VWP was instituted at a time when the threat of international terrorism did not loom as ominous as it does today. It was intended to expedite travel to our country for people who were a low risk of becoming illegal aliens. Today, in the post-9/11 world, there are additional concerns that must be considered.
In this day and age, we would not consider allowing anyone — including our own citizens and VWP passport holders — to board an airplane without thoroughly screening them. It, therefore, makes no sense to let them off the plane, and into our country, without some sort of screening process. There can be little doubt that if the VWP did not exist, and all travelers except for the special provisions for Canadians and Mexicans were required to present visas, that the processes to identify and keep out potential terrorists and intending illegal aliens would be enhanced.
Our own intelligence and law enforcement agencies acknowledge that there are large numbers of Islamic fundamentalists and persons with identified connections to al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations who reside in European countries that participate in the VWP. As Dr. Stephen M. Steinlight wrote in an April 2004 publication of the Center for Immigration Studies, “Virtually every major city in Western Europe has a central mosque, funded by the Saudis, that preaches extremist Wahabbi doctrine. These mosques, that have spawned the likes of Zacharias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, are recruiting centers and financial support networks for Muslim terrorist cells.” Many extremists are citizens of those countries. In addition, others connected to terrorism who reside in those countries have access to stolen or altered passports of those countries.
The terrorist organizations themselves have recognized the visa waiver program as a chink in America’s defenses against their infiltration of our country. In his March 2004 book, “Bearers of Global Jihad?: Immigration and National Security After 9/11,” published by the Nixon Center, Dr. Robert S. Leiken, whose testimony you will also receive, notes that, “al-Qaeda strives to recruit individuals with access to Western passports. Since September 11, jihadists have rebuilt and even extended their European operations.” With large, and often radicalized, Islamic populations in many VWP countries, the failure to pre-screen citizens of any country poses a significant risk to homeland security.
The issues which must be balanced in considering whether the VWP should be abolished involve the amount of threat resulting from the existence of the program and the amount of increased security that would result from its abolishment. The ease with which terrorists may be able to enter the country at ports of entry is obviously of paramount importance, but one should not overlook the extent to which illegal residence in the United States is also facilitated by the program. The latter is relevant because the cumulative size of the illegal alien population, now estimated at 9 to 11 million persons, with about one-third of them estimated to be persons who entered legally and then stayed on illegally, provides camouflage for the operation of terrorists who are in the country.
In assessing the national security threat represented by travelers from VWP countries it is relevant to keep in mind the following:
- the Moussaoui and Reid cases, noted above, both of whom were terrorists, traveled to the U.S. respectively on a French and United Kingdom passport,
- the emergence in European VWP countries of a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalists, noted above,
- the role of Germany, a VWP participant, as a planning center for the September 11 terrorist attacks, and
- the fact that some of the members in the September 11 terrorist conspiracy were unable to participate in the attacks because they were denied visas.
It can be argued that, because all of the 19 September 11 terrorists received visas, the consular screening process for visa issuance is irrelevant to national security. That argument ignores both the fact that the consular screening succeeded in denying entry to some of the participants, and the fact that consular visa screening, backed up by Department of Homeland Security screening, is much more rigorous today than before September 11.
A visa interview conducted by a person who is familiar with the language, customs and documents of the visa applicant’s country will always offer a greater opportunity to identify and deny a visa to a person who is not a bona fide visitor to the United States. Although there are major pressures on the visa-issuing consuls abroad, these are not as great as the pressures on the immigration and customs authorities at U.S. ports of entry. Therefore, when there is consular screening, not only is there a secondary check on the bona fides of an intending traveler and the legitimacy of the passport, it is a check that is better informed and not as compromised by the time pressures to avoid bottlenecks at the U.S. port of entry.
Elimination of the VWP will admittedly have its costs, both monetary and the added inconvenience that will be imposed on legitimate travelers. The U.S. tourism industry argues that these costs may be harmful to their interests. As we have learned from the bitter lessons of 9/11, the price of failing to take necessary precautions is significantly higher. The loss of lives, the destruction of property and the reluctance of people to travel out of fear outweigh any additional costs and inconvenience that might rise as a result of elimination of the VWP. People have accepted the costs and inconveniences associated with modern travel, and there is every reason to believe that travelers from those countries affected will understand and accept the need to secure a visa before coming to the United States.
American businesses that depend on tourism and travel argue that national security depends on intelligence information rather than consular screening. We certainly concur. But enhanced intelligence does not negate the critical supporting role of consular screening of visa applicants in using intelligence information to screen out terrorists, in identifying falsified passports, and in applying in-country expertise to screen out persons ineligible for visas.
The concern of the travel industry that elimination of the VWP would lead to a major decrease in tourism to the U.S. and jeopardize this lucrative industry which employs many people in this country is also misplaced. The industry ignores the fact that foreign travelers to the United States do not have to obtain a U.S. visa every time they travel to the United States. Before the VWP was started, and in countries that do not now participate in the program, persons intending to travel to the United States apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate only if they did not already have one.
Visas are issued for varying periods of validity and varying numbers of entry into the United States, depending on reciprocity, country-by-country experience with visa abuse, and the judgment of the consular officer. Prior to creation of the VWP, in countries that now participate in the program, such as the United Kingdom, most citizens received visas that were indefinitely valid. In other words, a U.K. visitor to the United States would have to apply in person only once in order to be able to visit the United States over a lifetime. If we return to this system in which all visitors have to make at least one in-person application for a visa, it would have no effect on travelers who already have visas.
There would be a transitional need for persons who have never obtained a U.S. visa to apply for one, but, after that transition, only persons who are first-time visitors to the United States would have to apply. These are exactly the persons who need to be interviewed and have their travel document scrutinized by a consular officer to determine that they are bona fide visitors.
The VWP relies on an assumption that nationals of the countries that participate in the program represent a negligible threat of becoming illegal aliens in our country. Yet, there is currently no basis for that assumption. It is only in comparison to the illegal alien population from other countries that are not participants in the program, Mexico especially, that the incidence of illegal immigration from VWP countries pale by comparison.
The 1986 IRCA amnesty demonstrated that nationals of the VWP also become illegal residents of our country. Nearly all, if not all, of the current 27 VWP countries had nationals who applied for the amnesty. According to the Report on the Legalized Alien Population issued in March 1992, which included data on about half of the amnesty applicants, five of the VWP participating countries had more than 1,000 amnesty applicants, with the United Kingdom at the top of the list with 6,686 applicants.
It is impossible to determine the number of illegal immigrants from VWP countries since the 1986 amnesty, but immigration data reveal that in 2002 over 70 percent of the newly admitted immigrants from VWP countries were already residing in the United States. This compares with less than 64 percent of the new immigrants from non-VWP countries who similarly were already residing in the United States.
There is one final argument against terminating the VWP. As noted above, visa practices are often based on reciprocity. If we were to end our program, U.S. travelers could find their ability to travel to those 27 countries without obtaining visas similarly ended. This would represent an inconvenience for U.S. travelers. However, today reciprocity plays a much smaller role in visa policies than do tourism considerations. Many countries do not require visas of U.S. visitors even though we require them of their nationals. This suggests the possibility that inconvenience to U.S. travelers as a result of a termination of the VWP could be minimal.
In summary, we find the arguments for continuing the VWP not compelling, and the national security and exclusion of intending illegal alien reasons for terminating the program persuasive. The threat to our homeland from international terrorism now and for the foreseeable future is so great that we can ill afford to perpetuate loopholes in our security system like the VWP.