Support grows, yet concerns remain over bill to speed up visa system

Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she has been told by officials at the Department of Homeland Security that by June 2012, the agency will have a "fully operative biographic exit system in place for those who exit by U.S. airports."

She said the department should be ready to calculate overstays by April or May.

"We will see, I've been told this before and before and before," she said. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said that while the bill "looks pretty good" and he "favors most of it" the overstay problem is important and an exit system is needed. 

The package, a combination of bills previously introduced, is designed bolster the economic recovery by reducing costs, speeding up visa times and easing restrictions for visitors interested in traveling to the United States. 

Seven senators — Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — unveiled the legislation on Monday arguing that it could add nearly $100 billion to the economy and create 700,000 jobs in the next decade.

The senators say that the legislation — the Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (“JOLT”) Act — to get the economy going into high gear. 

In the past 10 years the United States market share of worldwide overseas travel market has dropped from a 17 percent to less than 12 percent — as global travel is expected to double over the next decade. 

"This is a jobs bill, no question about it," Schumer said at Tuesday's hearing. 

He said at a hearing that the differences were narrowing on the bill and he would like to "move it quickly in time for summer tourism season.

"Moving this is really a national imperative," he said. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Travel Association along with the National Retail Federation are among the business groups that support the measure. 

Thomas Donohue, president and chief executive of U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the bill is all about jobs. 

"We are talking about a way in which we can strengthen our economy just by encouraging more travelers to visit the United States," he said. 

The USTA recently studied the economic effects of including 11 potential candidates for the visa waiver program — Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Israel, Panama, Poland, Romania, Taiwan and Uruguay.  Last year, 3 million visitors from these countries spent $14 billion in the United States, directly supporting 104,300 jobs in the American travel industry. 

In the first year of participation in the visa program, the growth would nearly double.  If that first year were 2012, travel would generate an additional 482,000 arrivals and $5.1 billion more in total revenue, U.S.Travel estimates. 

Last year the travel industry supported 14.4 million American jobs and added $1.9 trillion to the U.S. economy. 

"If there is one thing I can leave with you today it’s this, our industry has the potential to grow and to grow fast," said Roger Dow, president and chief executive of U.S.Travel.

The National Retail Federation also urged the Senate to approve the measure. 

“Foreign tourists and business people want to come to the United States and shop in our stores, but long lines for visas have them taking their money elsewhere,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said.

“Retailers wouldn’t tell customers to wait for weeks and neither should the State Department," he said. 

"Speeding up the visa process is one of the quickest ways to boost the U.S. economy, and we should do it as soon as possible.”

International travel to the United States represents a significant component of the economy. Studies show that, on average, each overseas visitor spends about $4,000. 

In 2011, international visitors spent a record $153 billion on U.S. travel and tourism-related goods and services, the Commerce Department reported last week. 

The White House and State Department have added visa centers in countries like China and Brazil where demand for travel is the greatest. 

Under current law, the wait time for U.S. visas can be as long as 100 days for travelers from certain countries. 

In addition, the $140 visa application fee and travel to distant consulates for visa interviews has hampered travel to the United States.

The measure aims to encourage the State Department to issue Chinese visitor visas that last longer than the current one-year maximum and provide some Canadian "snowbird" visitors with visas to stay up to 240 days, up from 180. 

Under current law, Chinese nationals must apply for new U.S. visas every year to travel to the United States, while travelers from other countries can receive up to 10-year, multiple entry visas.  

Feinstein expressed concern that, at this point, there is little to no recourse for U.S. officials if a Chinese visitor over stays their visa. She said an agreement is needed between both nations to ensure that the over stays are kept to a minimum. 

The bill requests that the State Department lower visa application fees during off-peak seasons to give travelers the incentive to apply for visas when demand is lower, with an increase in visa application volume expected to make up for lower application fees. 

The measure would allow the State Department to charge a fee for expediting some tourist and business travel visas. Under the bill, State would issue a visa within three business days and with the fee increase capacity to more quickly process those visas in India, China, and Brazil.

The bill sets standards for visa processing — conducting interviews within 15 days of requesting an appointment and after one-year, lower the wait time to 10 days.

The legislation also would allow Customs and Border Protection to add foreign dignitaries to the global entry program on a “case-by-case” basis, establish tough standards for visa processing times.

Under the measure, Poland and other nations would be allowed to join the visa waiver program, a move generally backed by lawmakers, including Feinstein. 

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