Disney World is dubbed one of the "Happiest Places on Earth", and Pres. Barack Obama will try to make it even happier by proposing to simplify the tourist visa process during a speech there on Thursday. The President will "unveil a strategy that will significantly help boost tourism and travel" said a White House aide. Trying to boost the top industry in a state with double-digit unemployment is a good idea. But making it easier for foreign visitors to come to the United States is a bad idea without a completed entry/exit system.
On Thursday, Pres. Obama will deliver his speech in front of Cinderella Castle at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. But on his way into the park, he might want to notice what the Magic Kingdom and Orlando's other 6 major theme parks have at the gates -- an entry/exit system. In fact, it's the same type of entry/exit system that Congress first required INS to develop when it passed Rep. Lamar Smith's Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and then later mandated the use of biometric technology with the system in The Patriot Act.
DISNEY WORLD'S ENTRY/EXIT SYSTEM
The systems that are installed at Orlando's major theme parks are all similar and quite simple. Tourists have a variety of ticket options, including multi-day, multi-park passes and annual passes, but each of these passes are non-transferable. To enforce the non-transferability of the tickets, tourists have their finger prints scanned when first entering one of the parks. Their ticket ID number and finger prints are then stored in a secure database. When they leave the park, and if they're interested in returning to that park or visiting another park later in the day, they scan their ticket again so the resort knows that they have indeed exited the theme park.
In 2009 (the most recent data available), 27.8 million foreign nationals were temporarily admitted to the United States for pleasure, accounting for 77% of all non-immigrant admissions. Of the 27.8 million foreign visitors, many visited theme parks in Orlando or other parts of the United States that use entry/exit systems similar to those used at Disney World, Universal Studios, and Sea World.
THOSE WHO COME, DON'T ALWAYS LEAVE
Most estimates show that 40% or more of illegal aliens currently living in the United States first entered legally on temporary visas like the B-2 tourist visa. Currently, the Congressionally mandated entry/exit system called US-VISIT is only used to record entry for foreign visitors at air and sea ports. At points of entry along our land borders, Mexican and Canadian citizens are exempt if they plan to stay inside the border zone for less than 30 days and possess a border crossing card. It's the exit system that's yet to be implemented, which presents a big opportunity for visa overstayers and creates a threat to our national security.
Pres. Obama's speech in Orlando will make it easier for foreign visitors to enter the U.S. without a fully implemented entry/exit system. Furthermore, Pres. Obama proposes to expand the Visa Waiver Program, which is an agreement with 36 other nations allowing their citizens to travel to the United States without a visa. This proposal enhances the risks without the exit system fully in place.
Even members of the President's own party recognize the risks of the Visa Waiver Program without a complete biometric entry/exit system. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) have offered companion bills in the House and Senate that would strengthen the program. Their bills would update the Visa Waiver Program with new benchmarks and oversight for participating countries by reviewing visa overstay rates and other factors to determine their continued participation.
FINISH US-VISIT BEFORE MAKING IT EASIER TO ENTER U.S.
I'm not saying that US-VISIT is as simple to implement as the biometric entry/exit systems installed at Orlando's theme parks. Even the Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies Jessica Vaughan calls it one of the most "ambitious immigration program enhancements ever undertaken." Still, the Department of Homeland Security has made some progress (even though its taken more than 10 years to implement half the system), but until both the entry and exit systems are fully operational, efforts by Pres. Obama to make entry for potential visa overstayers or national security threats even more easy should be placed on hold.
NumbersUSA considers adequate Congressional funding for the completion of US-VISIT and the implementation by DHS of the full system so important that we've included it as a question on our survey to candidates for Congress. The most recent effort by Congress was in 2005 when Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) offered an amendment to Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's H.R.4437 (Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 ).
CHRIS CHMIELENSKI is the Director of Content & Activism for NumbersUSA