The US Visa Waiver program, which lets most Australian leisure travellers visit the USA without needing to obtain a visa, faces likely suspension as the US tightens its border security and cracks down on illegal immigrants and visa overstayers.
President Trump’s new 90-day ban on visitors from seven mainly Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) takes immediate force and has been widely reported. It also applies to any Australian who is a dual national with any of those countries. See: Immediate US travel ban hits Australian dual nationals
Trump has also ordered a wall to be built along the US border with Mexico to halt or deter illegal arrivals. US authorities are equally worried about people entering the US on visitor visas, or under the Visa Waiver program, and simply staying on.
Early last year, the US Department of Homeland Security revealed that of the 45 million people whose visas expired in fiscal 2015, an estimated 416,500 were still in the US, staying on illegally.
That’s very similar to the number of people caught last year trying to sneak across US borders. The US Border Patrol apprehended 415,816 people in the last fiscal year. Most of those were trying to cross from Mexico.
The San Diego Union-Tribune ran a story last week headlined: After border wall, will ‘overstayed visas’ be next?
It seems likely.
“The Secretary of State shall immediately suspend the Visa Interview Waiver Program and ensure compliance with section 222 of the INA (Immigration and Nationality Act), which requires that all individuals seeking a non-immigrant visa, undergo an in-person interview, subject to specific statutory exceptions,” a draft executive order states. It has yet to be signed by President Donald Trump.
Note: the order refers to the Visa Interview Waiver Program – which is not the same as the Visa Waiver Program. It applies to people who already have US visas and who need to renew them. They can currently ask for their visa interviews to be waived – but if the new executive order takes force, they will not be able to ask that.
A suspension of the actual Visa Waiver program may follow, however. The situation is likely to be clarified in coming weeks. At the moment, Australians and citizens from 37 other favoured countries can obtain a 90-day tourist visa to enter the US by submitting biographical information online.
In Australia’s favour, very few of its citizens entering the US under the Visa Waiver Program overstay. In financial year 2015 (the most recent full year available) 4842 Australians were suspected to be still within the USA, having overstayed their visas. That was just 0.3% of the 1.3 million Australians who entered under the Visa Waiver Program in the relevant year. Only Andorra, Japan and Singapore had lower rates of overstaying.
Visitors to the US who enter with visas are far more likely to overstay than those who enter on the Visa Waiver program. African states are among the top offenders. Of all entrants from Djibouti in financial year 2015, 26.8% are believed to have stayed on illegally. Other examples: Eritrea 16.33%, Mauritania 12.6%. Of Asian country citizens entering with visas, 16.7% citizens of Laos are thought to have stayed on in the US beyond their legal visa limit.
Calls to tighten or suspend the Visa Waiver program are not new and come from all sides of US politics, with politicians warning that terrorists could take advantage of the program to slip into America posing as tourists.
The alarm was raised back in 2015 by one of the fastest-rising stars on the US political scene, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
Gabbard, a former US Army major who has served two tours of duty in Iraq and who is on the Democrat side of American politics, urged the US Administration to suspend the Visa Waiver program for Britain, France and Germany because of the large numbers of Islamic extremists living there.
The 38 countries in the Visa Waiver Program, many of them in Europe, include Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Greece. Participating countries outside Europe include Australia and New Zealand. Australia has had some of its citizens fighting in the ranks of ISIS.
Written by Peter Needham