While in Disney World to promote U.S. travel and tourism on January 19, 2012, President Obama issued an Executive Order to create jobs and increase economic growth in the United States by improving and streamlining temporary visa processing for foreign visitors to the U.S. Through this Executive Order — Establishing Visa and Foreign Visitor Processing Goals and the Task Force on Travel and Competitiveness — President Obama outlined that improvements must take place to streamline and speed up the process for international travelers coming to the U.S. as B-1/B-2 tourists and business visitors. This Executive Order indicates that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security must work together to develop an implementation plan that will focus and achieve the following in 2012:
- Increase nonimmigrant (temporary) visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent over the coming year
- Ensure that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of receipt of application, recognizing that resource and security considerations and the need to ensure provision of consular services to U.S. citizens may dictate specific exceptions
- Increase efforts to expand the Visa Waiver Program and travel by nationals of Visa Waiver Program participants
- Expand reciprocal recognition for expedited travel, such as the Global Entry program
See Executive Order — Establishing Visa and Foreign Visitor Processing Goals and the Task Force on Travel and Competitiveness
President Obama also indicated that the plan for improved visa processing should identify other measures to enhance and expedite international travel into the U.S. while ensuring the country's national security. The State Department and Homeland Security must submit a report to the President within 180 days addressing progress on the achievement of these goals. A specific website will also be established and made available to the public to assist international travelers and industry regarding statistics about the current status of the travel and tourism industry, impact on the economy, visa processing, and entry times into the U.S.
In connection with the issuance of this Executive Order, the State Department stated that it will continue efforts to increase B-1/B-2 visa processing in key growth markets, with a specific focus on China, Brazil and India. The focus on China, Brazil and India stems from the following facts: (1) visitors from these countries contributed about $15 billion and thousands of jobs to the U.S. economy in 2010; and (2) by 2016, the number of travelers to the U.S. from China is expected to grow 135 percent, from India is expected to grow 50 percent; and from Brazil is expected to grow 274 percent. Additionally, in fiscal year 2011, one million visa applications were processed in China and 800,000 applications were processed in Brazil. In a December 2011 report from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing commemorating One Million Visa Adjudications, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke stated that the consulates in China have been working longer hours and adding staff and workspace to increase and streamline visa processing in China. He remarked that an additional 50 visa officers who speak Chinese will be sent to China in Spring 2012. Ambassador Locke also commented during these proceedings that the U.S. government has approached the Chinese government about the issuance of five-year visitor visas. The U.S. government is willing to grant five-year visitor visas to Chinese citizens if China is willing to grant that same reciprocity to U.S. citizens. Currently, U.S. visitor visas are only granted for a one-year time period to Chinese citizens and Chinese visitor visas are only granted for a one-year period to U.S. citizens. More information can be found on the U.S. Embassy's Beijing website.
In addition to focusing on better and faster visa processing in China, Brazil, India and other growth markets, an additional expansion of the Visa Waiver Program has also been recommended. Under the Visa Waiver Program, certain international visitors coming to the U.S. for business or tourism do not need to obtain B-1/B-2 visas in their passports as these individuals are from participating countries that qualify under the Visa Waiver Program. Currently, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of 36 participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa from a consulate abroad. VWP travelers must meet certain eligibility requirements for this program and are required to have a valid authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to travel and are screened at the port of entry into the United States. More information about the Visa Waiver Program, the list of participating countries and ESTA are included here, and here. Recently, Secretary Clinton sent a letter to Secretary Napolitano to ask that Taiwan be added to the list of Visa Waiver countries. It is likely that additional countries may also be considered for the Visa Waiver Program.
Another new initiative for visa processing in 2012 stemming from the Executive Order will be to allow certain foreign nationals who have already been interviewed and thoroughly screened with a prior visa application to obtain a renewal without having another interview. This pilot program will streamline visa processing for low-risk applicants, which includes renewals, as well as categories of some young and older first-time applicants. The State Department anticipates that this program will benefit tens of thousands of applicants, especially those individuals applying in China and Brazil. Although certain individuals will have a more streamlined processing, the State Department continues to weigh expedited processing against national security concerns and will continue to screen those cases more thoroughly. The attached Fact Sheet about the Visa Pilot Program provides more information.
Finally, President Obama calls for efforts to expand the government's Global Entry program, including expansion to four additional airports in Minneapolis, Charlotte, Denver and Phoenix. Global Entry is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that was created as a pilot in 2008 to facilitate expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. The Obama Administration plans to expand and make the Global Entry program permanent. The Global Entry program now has more than 246,000 members, and more than one million trusted travelers have Global Entry benefits. There are currently 131 Global Entry kiosks at 20 airports. Participants may enter the United States by using automated kiosks located at select airports. By using Global Entry, CBP officers have saved more than 36,450 inspection hours through these trusted travelers.
Clearly, this Executive Order and the subsequent initiatives by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security were started as an additional way to stimulate and grow the U.S. economy through travel and tourism in the U.S. President Obama specifically outlined in the Executive Order that U.S. market share of spending from international travelers decreased more than 30 percent from 2000 to 2010. To streamline processing, increase efficiency and reduce wait times, these visa processing initiatives will provide specific tangible targets for the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant government agencies to achieve in 2012 and beyond. By implementing programs to reach these targets, the U.S. anticipates that international travel — which will then correspond to increased spending in the U.S. — will increase from China, Brazil, India and other growth markets.