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Opinion: Columnists

Visa waivers shouldn't be hostage to fight over illegal immigrant amnesty

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Opinion,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,Immigration,Magazine,Amnesty,Visas

In 2007, then Sen. George Voinovich told the story of a young Czech soldier who wanted to visit some American veterans with whom he had served side-by-side in Iraq. He applied for a visa, but the U.S. consular office gave him an expected answer: Application denied. The reason? He had recently been in a country with an active terrorist threat. Iraq.

One year later, things changed. U.S. law was amended to allow the Czech Republic to join the Visa Waiver Program. That program lets citizens of member countries (now totaling 37) to travel to this country visa-free — for up to 90 days — for tourism or business purposes.

The Bush administration revamped the program, adding features that made it more user-friendly for would-be visitors, while beefing up security. Unfortunately, since President Obama has been in office, only two new countries have been added to the program. Solid American allies such as Poland, Chile and Israel are still waiting in line.

Expanding participation in the program is just one of several long-overdue actions that enjoy bipartisan support but haven't moved forward. Also waiting in the wings is a proposal to extend E-1 and E-2 visa privileges to New Zealand, a solid American friend. These visas are specifically designed for individuals who want to invest or expand businesses in the United States.

In part, these reforms have gotten a case of the slows because of the Gang of Eight's immigration bill. To build pressure on those who oppose that measure's grant of amnesty to people in this country illegally, bill sponsors have adopted a deliberate strategy of holding "hostage" as many less-controversial reform initiatives as possible. Whether it's fast-tracking visa waivers, expanding visas for high-skilled workers, establishing a new temporary worker program or bolstering border security, they want to make sure that nothing gets passed until they get amnesty.

The administration has been a willing accomplice in this all-or-nothing strategy. Instead of pushing for practical progress on non-immigrant visa programs like visa waivers, Mr. Obama has been content to be a do-nothing president.

But as the president happily rolled up America's welcome mat, he inadvertently opened the door for some unwelcome meddling from the European Union. The EU has long sought absolute control over the visa policies of its member nations. Most, but not all EU countries already enjoy visa waiver privileges. Now the European Parliament has decided to take matters into its own hands, passing a new regulation authorizing the European Commission to suspend visa exemptions if the U.S. doesn't lift visa requirements for all EU member countries in six months.

According to the new regulation, the commission can temporarily suspend the EU's own visa exemptions on foreign countries. Not only does the EU want to dictate to the U.S. who should be in the Visa Waiver Program, it also doesn't like the information exchange provisions the Bush administration added to the program to enhance security and deter visa overstays.

The EU attempt to dictate how the program should work is a blatant effort to undermine the sovereignty of its member nations and to bully Washington. Shame on Brussels.

But a pox on the White House as well, which has put amnesty above everything.

There is no reason nonimmigrant visa reforms should have to wait for Congress to pass a “comprehensive” immigration mega-bill. Reforms should be allowed to advance on their own merits.

Free and secure travel among free nations is an engine of economic growth and a glue that binds democracies together. This administration has been a poor advocate for advancing the cause.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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