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Welcoming Tourists in a Post-9/11 World

Authors: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, and Liam Schwartz, Principal, Liam Schwartz & Associates
January 25, 2012
Wall Street Journal


Ten years ago, the United States welcomed a record 7.5 million travelers with visas. After a lost decade, that number might finally be reached again this year. But restoring America's allure to tourists and business travelers will require a long-term commitment.

President Obama announced recently that his administration would speed up visa processing and expand the number of countries whose citizens can travel here without visas. In the executive order that accompanied his announcement, the president pledged to "improve visa and foreign visitor processing . . . in order to create jobs and spur economic growth in the United States, while continuing to protect our national security."

Achieving those twin goals will require using the tremendous technological advances in homeland security for enhancing how the government manages risk in the visa system. Since 9/11, foreign tourists, business travelers, students and others presenting low security risks have faced the same cumbersome procedural hurdles as high-risk applicants. The administration should follow the lead of countries like Australia in deploying technology to better sort those risks.

Current visa procedures are similar to those of a century ago, requiring consular officers to vet visa applicants through face-to-face interviews. These officers must act as human lie detectors—leafing through documents and asking probing questions with the goal of uncovering mendacity. Over the past decade, the U.S. has layered additional security measures on top of the traditional interview screening. These include biometrics, expanded checks against terrorist watch lists, enhanced screening for prior immigration violations, and more background investigations.

But as currently structured, the U.S. visa process treats our friends in much the same way as it treats our foes. Virtually all new visa applicants are interviewed, and many applicants—about 300,000 of the roughly eight million who apply for a U.S. visa each year—face time-consuming background checks. Only a small fraction is denied visas, but many face delays of months or even years.

These delays cost billions of dollars annually in lost tourism, jobs and foreign investment. According to the U.S. Travel Association, regaining our pre-9/11 share of global overseas travel would pump an additional $39 billion per year into the U.S. economy, and that's not even counting the multiplier effect of more domestic jobs.

With existing technologies, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security could implement better visa procedures at lower cost. Computerized risk sorting is already used for identifying potentially risky goods imported into the U.S. Similar computerized systems—using intelligence and criminal information as well as travel and immigration records—can be used for sorting individuals who wish to enter the U.S. into lower-risk and higher-risk categories.

After this initial screening, low-risk travelers—the vast majority of visa applicants—would be processed quickly, freeing up consular officers for vetting higher-risk travelers. The result would be a system that better protects security while welcoming millions of people to boost the U.S. economy. Indeed, pilot projects of similar screening systems have resulted in fewer false positives, while still identifying all the threats captured under the existing procedures, as well as some that were missed.

These screening systems could also improve the ability to identify those who might be tempted to overstay their visas and migrate illegally to the U.S. Using airline arrival and exit data, the Obama administration has developed the capability to identify most overstays as soon as they occur, and to calculate overstay rates on a country-by-country basis.

This is a powerful tool, and one that has only begun to be used. Individuals who overstay will be identified, may be tracked down and deported, and would likely be denied visas if they attempted to return to the U.S. Within the next year it should be possible to identify patterns among overstays and to develop risk scores for overstaying. Instead of relying purely on the intuition of consular officers, there will be real data available to assess the likelihood that a visa applicant will overstay.

The Obama administration should supplement these new overstay-tracking capabilities with a simple notification procedure. All visa holders should be required to maintain a working email address, and they would receive notification of a pending visa expiration that warns of the serious consequences of overstaying. Such proactive contact with visa holders would further reduce violations.

Once automated security screening and an effective system for identifying overstays is in place, Congress should lift the current mandatory interview requirement. Consular interviews should be reserved for those who fit known patterns for overstaying or raise security concerns.

The measures announced by President Obama should reduce the number of interviews and help speed approval for some low-risk travelers. But these efforts need to be expanded to focus visa resources on those who pose a threat to our country and reduce the inefficiencies that have been so costly for the U.S. economy over the past decade. The Obama administration, and Congress, should move quickly to implement a visa system that responds to the genuine economic and security challenges of 21st century travel.

Mr. Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of "The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11" (Harper, 2008). Mr. Schwartz is the principal at Liam Schwartz & Associates, which specializes in visa and consular law.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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