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Bill would revamp visa process to help U.S. travel industry

WASHINGTON – A bill introduced Tuesday in Congress seeks to promote international tourism to the United States while requiring new layers of security for nations that are granted the easiest access.

The measure would balance the desire of the U.S. travel industry for more overseas visitors with the need to ensure homeland security. Nations wanting to remain or be added to the “visa waiver” program would be required to meet airport security standards and upgrade passports and other travel documents.

The bill is a reworked version of the Jobs Originating through Launching Travel Act, or JOLT Act, that was introduced in previous sessions of Congress but ran into challenges from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., a sponsor with Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said the measure was rewritten in part to address security concerns, and to recognize that the State Department already has taken steps to speed visa processing in key countries.

“It’s difficult because there is a lot of concern about foreign travelers in general,” Heck said in an interview. “It’s a much more difficult environment now than it was two years ago. But we think by utilizing electronic passports and the visa waiver program you actually increase the level of security and safety and that’s the angle we’re going to pursue moving the bill forward.”

“There are still provisions in there that we think will increase international travel and tourism,” Heck said.

The bill was endorsed by the U.S. Travel Association that has been lobbying to expand the visa waiver program that in 2013 brought 19.5 million travelers to the United States, 61 percent of all overseas visitors. Citizens of 38 countries are eligible for visa-free entry to the United States.

Under the bill, nations wanting entry into the visa waiver program would be required to meet mandatory security standards at their airports and in how they issue travel documents. The standards now are discretionary for waiver nations but would be made mandatory under the bill. The program would be renamed the Secure Travel Partnership Program to further underscore the shift in focus.

At the same time the State Department and Department of Homeland Security would be encouraged to expand the Global Entry Program that allows pre-approved low-risk “trusted travelers” to bypass traditional customs inspections and use automated kiosks instead.

The legislation would set a goal for U.S. consulates overseas to interview 90 percent of visa applicants within 10 days, a standard already being met in many parts of the world following a State Department push in recent years. It would require the department to complete a two-year test program to conduct certain visa interviews by videoconferencing.

In a nod to “snowbirds” who migrate annually to Las Vegas and other sunny climes, the bill would allow certain visitors from Canada to remain in the United States for up to 240 days. The limit now is 180 days.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.

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