Waiving Visitor Visas Would Help U.S. Business, Innovation

Some of the finest minds in American history were immigrants -- just think of Joseph Pulitzer and Albert Einstein.

In fact, one reason we won World War II and the Cold War is that American policymakers strove to bring the best and the brightest into this country. These visitors helped to shape and develop numerous aspects of our lives that we now take for granted.

Unfortunately, we’ve moved away from this strategy. Since 9/11, America has engaged in a long war. To win it, we’ll need to develop new technologies, and we’ll need to retain the support of our allies. Yet for some reason, the end of the Cold War also brought an end to many of the strategies that helped to make America what it is today.

These days, much debate revolves around whether to let immigrants come here permanently. But there’s another way to reach out to our allies and build goodwill around the world: Make it easier for people to come here and visit.

Allowing more guests will improve American livelihood, not harm it. Innovation in science and technology hasn’t been developed only by individuals who were born in this country. If harsh visa requirements dissuade visitors from coming, American competitiveness in the world will eventually suffer.

The Visa Waiver Program will make it easier to draw ideas and technologies from individuals entering the country to conduct business in the United States. VWP allows individuals from specified countries to enter the country for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa.

While it’s possible that some of these individuals will overstay their allotted time, it’s more likely to encourage businesses to become more global and active in many different fields in America. The system simply allows the free flow of individuals who have a beneficial short-term reason for entering the country.

We also need to streamline the application process for those immigrants who apply for longer-term visas. Currently, every single applicant must be interviewed by a consular official. This is time-consuming and ultimately wasteful. It would make more sense to interview only those individuals considered to be a potential risk. This would ease the workload on the consul’s office, where employees are under pressure to make snap judgments because of time constraints. And it would allow our country to focus resources where they’re needed.

Another strategy to help encourage movement across borders and to ease the strain on U.S. consular officers would be to create a visa-process ombudsman authority. The ombudsman would be in charge of analyzing application cases and could focus on assessing consular posts where there is an unusually high rejection rate.

Oversight is critical in order to keep overworked officers from making mistakes and to protect those individuals applying to gain access into the country. Yet there isn’t nearly enough oversight today. With a system of checks and balances, errors would be less likely. That should allow us to block more potential threats, while opening our doors to more potentially beneficial immigrants.

To make it easier for low-risk and certain classes of travelers, we should establish an “e-visa” system -- a paperless visa that would be entered automatically into a record of all visitors in the country. Biometrics (such as fingerprints) also could be uploaded into the system, making it easier to verify that the visa is authentic. This would help prevent possible security/criminal threats from entering our country.

Policymakers should realize we need to make the United States more welcoming to our allies, not less. The VWP would do just that -- and help us build a more secure border. Meanwhile, we’d get back in the business of attracting the world’s best and brightest individuals.

That’s the best way to win the long war ahead.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow in defense and homeland security in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation. Steven Clemons is a senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.