Travel, retail groups push for White House immigration proposal provisions

Travel and retail groups are lining up in support of provisions in the White House's immigration proposal that aim to streamline visa processing, boost tourism and bolster the slowly recovering economy.

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While the United States has made significant strides in past year in lowering wait times for visas, expanding the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and speeding up entry for millions of visitors, the groups are pressing for more.

Advocates say the immigration bill is the perfect place for the travel provisions that ensure business and leisure travelers from outside the United States are efficiently processed when applying for a visa and entering the country, while also maintaining high security standards.

"We see this as an opportunity as there is momentum building for comprehensive immigration reform," Patricia Rojas, vice president of government relations for the U.S. Travel Association, told The Hill.

The battle over immigration reform sets up a chance to drive home the issue of improving the flow of short-term travelers with the management of undocumented immigrants and other broader immigration issues, she said.

"You can't forget that there are legitimate people coming here for business and leisure travel and not letting them come in will hurt the economy," Rojas said.

David French, chief lobbyist with the National Retail Federation (NRF), who called the provisions the least controversial part of the immigration package, credited the Obama administration for recognizing the economic benefits and job creation possibilities of improving the broad framework of increasing foreign tourism.

"Clearly there is a link to U.S. jobs," French said.

He said his members feel and know the effects of increased tourism and "it's not insignificant."

Continuing to move forward on implementing changes, which so far have greatly improved wait times for visas, especially in high-demand countries such as China and Brazil, will ensure that the State and Homeland Security departments will have the resources needed to meet the anticipated growth in foreign travel to the United States.

Nearly a year ago, the White House launched a tourism plan that calls on federal departments and agencies to coordinate efforts to attract 100 million foreign tourists who can pump an estimated $250 billion into the U.S. economy by 2021.

About 66 million tourists visited the United States last year, an increase of 6 percent over 2011, the Commerce Department has estimated.

Notably, the push for a more efficient system from the coalition of business groups emerged from the jobs council, which President Obama has recently decided to shut down.

French said the council "definitely helped to focus attention" on visa issues and considered their visa system changes "low-hanging fruit" that could lead to job creation and more economic growth.

During meetings in 2011, NRF members grilled then White House chief of staff Bill Daley on making what they considered were simple fixes to visa and travel system, French said.

In 2011, travel-related employment created 7.5 million jobs.

Rojas also is expecting the reintroduction, in the next month or so, of legislation called the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act to help improve several aspects of visa processing.

For Rojas, the immigration measure would be a good vehicle for the JOLT bill.

The legislation would create a pilot program for expedited visa processing and to charge fees to pay for it, encourage longer visits by Canadians, make changes to the visa waiver program and increase visa processing capacity in China and Brazil.

Progress has already been made in many of these areas, but U.S. Travel, as part of a coalition of business and travel groups including the NRF, is pushing for improved technology to increase efficiency in processing visas before arrival and moving people steadily through points of entry, including sea ports and airports.

For example, there is a push for the State Department to use video conferencing for visa interviews when it is too far or cost-prohibitive for applicants to travel to the nearest city.

But the other key component, which lawmakers have raised, is improving the visa system while at the same time strengthening border security.

"It will be important for us to communicate to the Hill and administration that they have to think about ports of entry in between other points of entry," Rojas said.

"We have millions of legitimate travelers at seaports and airports and we need the technology and personnel to get them through efficiently."

The White House's plan also strengthens law enforcement cooperation and maintains robust counterterrorism and criminal information sharing initiatives.

It also provides greater flexibility to designate countries for participation in the VWP, which allows citizens of designated countries to visit the United States without obtaining a visa.

Taiwan was added in October.

In addition, the provisions would allow the State Department to waive interview requirements for certain very low-risk visa applicants.