by Jim Kouri, CPP
Under the Visa Waiver Program, citizens from 27 countries can travel to the United States visa free. Terrorism concerns involving VWP country citizens have led some to suggest eliminating or suspending the program, while the executive branch is considering adding countries to it.
Legislation passed in 2007 led the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop its Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), to screen VWP country citizens before they travel to the United States; if found ineligible, travelers will need to apply for a visa.
The potential elimination or suspension of the Visa Waiver Program could cause dramatic increases in visa demand–from around 500,000 (the average number of people from VWP countries who obtain a U.S. visa each year) to as many as 12.6 million (the average number of people who travel to the United States from VWP countries each year) –that could overwhelm visa operations in the near term.
To meet visa demand, State Department officials said they will likely need approximately 45 new facilities, which the US Congress estimates could cost between $3.8 billion and $5.7 billion.
Congressional leaders estimate that the State Department would also need substantially more staff — around 540 new Foreign Service officers at a cost of around $185 million to $201 million per year, and 1,350 local Foreign Service national staff at around $168 million to $190 million per year, as well as additional management and support positions for a total annual cost of $447 million to $486 million.
Because VWP elimination would increase the number of travelers needing a visa, the Government Accountability Office estimates that annual visa fee revenues would increase substantially, by $1.7 billion to $1.8 billion, and would offset the year-to-year recurring staffing costs.
The US State Department has done limited planning for how it would address increased visa demand if the program were suspended or eliminated. Adding countries to the Visa Waiver Program would reduce visa demand in those countries, but likely have a relatively limited effect overall on resources needed to meet visa demand and on State’s visa fee revenues.
The volume of visa applications is relatively small in most of the 13 “Road Map” countries the executive branch is considering for expansion. If all 13 Road Map countries were to join the program, and if all of those countries’ citizens who previously traveled with visas were to travel to the United States without visas, the reduction in workload would, we estimate, permit State to move about 21 to 31 Foreign Service officers to other posts in need, and to cut 52 to 77 Foreign Service national positions. In addition, though program expansion would result in less space needed for visa operations, this would likely result in little or no building or lease savings because any resulting excess consular space is in government-owned facilities, and could not be sold.
If all 13 Road Map countries were admitted to the Visa Waiver Program, we estimate that State would lose approximately $74 million to $83 million each year in collected visa fees, offsetting any savings in personnel costs. State and DHS officials acknowledged that the implementation of ESTA could increase visa demand in VWP countries, though neither State nor DHS has developed estimates of the increase.
DHS is currently developing ESTA, and DHS officials told Congressional leaders that the ESTA rejection rate could be between 1 percent and 3 percent, but they currently do not know. In addition, State and embassy officials believe some travelers might choose to apply for a visa rather than face potential, unexpected travel disruptions due to ESTA.
Neither DHS nor State has attempted to estimate how these two factors would affect visa demand, and, as a result, State has not estimated what additional resources would be needed to manage the demand, and what additional visa fees would be received.
However, State officials reported that if 1 percent to 3 percent of current VWP travelers came to embassies in VWP countries for visas, it could greatly increase visa demand at some locations, which could significantly disrupt visa operations.
Jim Kouri is a certified protection professional, terrorism expert, writer, commentator and contributing editor for Chief of Police Magazine. A former chief at a housing project in New York City’s Washington Heights district — dubbed Crack City — he serves as Fifth-Vice President of the National Association of Chiefs of Police (www.aphf.org). He possesses over 25 years of law enforcement and security experience and writes a regular column for KingNewsMedia.Com.He’s the author of Crime Talk: Conversations with America’s Top Crimefighters and Assume The Position: Police Science for Novelists, Screenwriters and Journalist, and his magazine articles appear in many publications. He’s a frequent guest on many TV and radio stations including Fox News, CNN, CBS, ABC, CNBC, and others. Kouri holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master of arts in public administration and he’s a board certified protection professional. Kouri also serves as political advisor for Emmy and Golden Globe winning actor Michael Moriarty. Jim Kouri is a regular contributor to Borderfire Report.
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