All the 9/11 hijackers had visas. Ergo, visas in the hands of terrorists are a deadly weapon. Such was the thinking early in the post-9/11 era.
Even though the 9/11 Commission published a separate report on the threat of terrorist travel, Washington paid little attention to the findings. Instead, it embraced a bunch of knee-jerk measures, some of which did more harm than good.
Efforts to keep visas out of terrorists’ hands did more to discourage tourism and curb the free exchange of people and ideas than they did to keep our enemies out of the country.
One of the most senseless “security” measures from this era is a law requiring everyone applying for a visa anywhere in the world to interview with a U.S. consular official.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that in Brazil the wait times for these interviews run up to four months.
This not only discourages foreign visitors, it forces the State Department to waste precious resources interviewing grandmas who want to visit loved ones in Vermont.
Another counter-productive “security” measure was cutting off the administration’s authority to add countries to the visa waiver program (VWP). The program allows up to 90 days of visa-free travel for tourists and business travelers from qualified countries.
The VWP actually facilitates both travel and security. Participating countries agree to share information far more useful for thwarting terrorist travel than what the U.S. gets from countries where visas are required.
Adding insult to injury, Congress passed a law billing foreign visitors $10 each and every time they come to the U.S. That money goes to (wait for it) promote tourism. Presumably, artificially inflating the cost of the trip makes it more attractive.
These initiatives haven’t made us any more secure. But they have made us a less welcoming country. The U.S. share of long-distance travel is down considerably over the past decade. And that costs us badly needed revenue and jobs.
None of this silliness was necessary. Integrating terrorist watch lists, screening manifests for security risks and bi-lateral cooperation with other countries have proved far more effective in thwarting terrorist travel.
After a decade of learning what does and doesn’t stop terrorist tourists, it is time for Washington to start doing things differently.
For starters, it is time to end mandatory interviews for every visa applicant. Instead, the State Department should be allowed to adopt a risk-based approach.
Interview requirements should be focused on specific countries, classes of travelers and suspect individuals who represent a terrorist or criminal threat or where there is likelihood of abusing or overstaying visa privileges.
The Department of Homeland Security should also ramp up overseas deployment of its Visa Security Officers to work with consular staffs. Of course, the State Department will need to stop obstructing deployment of these officers and start treating DHS as an equal partner in managing visa programs.
Additionally, the U.S. should mount a push to add countries to the VWP. It’s the most effective tool the government has to promote travel and beef up security simultaneously.
Finally, Congress should drop the insulting and largely self-defeating practice of taxing foreign visitors to pay for ads encouraging them to visit us. The best tourism ad America can make is to adopt sensible travel regulations.
It is long past time for America to show the world that it is both open for business and determined to defend itself against enemies who want to use legitimate means of trade and travel as weapons against us.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.