Senators Unveil Bipartisan Proposal to Boost Economy by Cutting Through Red Tape that has Hurt International Travel to U.S.

New Proposal Will Combine Separate Senate Travel Bills into Bipartisan Package Designed to Reform America’s Antiquated Travel Visa Laws and Create Hundreds of Thousands of Travel Jobs

March 26, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC—With the economy just starting to turn the corner, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a new proposal Monday that will boost the U.S. economy and create jobs by jumpstarting international travel to the United States. The legislation—named the Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (“JOLT”) Act—will reform outdated visa laws to cut through red tape that has caused a lag in foreign travel to the U.S.

The bipartisan package is sponsored by U.S. Senators Charles Schumer, Mike Lee, Amy Klobuchar, Marco Rubio, Barbara Mikulski, Roy Blunt and Mark Kirk.

While the global travel market is expected to double over the next decade, the United States’ market share of this industry has declined by 5% since the 2000. The JOLT Act is aimed at reversing that trend and recapturing the United States’ historic share of worldwide overseas travel, which could add nearly $100 billion to the economy over the next decade and create nearly 700,000 more American jobs.

The JOLT Act will be the subject of a Senate hearing tomorrow, Tuesday, March 27th.

“With the global travel market set to dramatically increase in the coming years, it is critical that we harness its power to boost our travel and tourism industries,” said Senator Schumer. “This bipartisan proposal will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the next decade and inject billions of dollars into our country’s economy. It is extremely important and vastly beneficial to our nation’s health.”
“Legal travel and legal immigration are too often left out of the ongoing immigration debate we are having in this country,” said Senator Lee. “We cannot ignore the benefits we enjoy by maintaining an efficient visa system that keeps us safe while avoiding excessive delays to legitimate travel across our borders. This bill will modernize that system.”
“Tourism is a powerful engine for job creation in Minnesota and across the country, and the growing international tourism market has huge untapped potential for local economies,” said Senator Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the tourism industry and serves as Co-Chair of the Senate Tourism Caucus. “This legislation will help cut through the red tape that has been limiting international tourism the United States and help our businesses grow and thrive.”

“Increasing international tourism to the United States will have a very important impact on our nation’s future economic growth,” said Senator Rubio. “Congress needs to pass legislation that will reduce unnecessary roadblocks that cause many international tourists to choose to travel to other countries. At the same time, we must implement policies that reinforce and strengthen the security of our nation from outside threats. The JOLT Act accomplishes both of these goals and it allows the United States to become more competitive in the global travel market. I am proud to be an original co-sponsor of this bill and I urge my Senate colleagues to join in the effort to pass this bill.”

“The JOLT Act improves the Visa Waiver Program and will create and sustain American jobs. It strengthens our alliances, enhances our security, and allows millions to visit the United States and spend their money here,” said Senator Mikulski. “A grandmother from Gdansk shouldn’t need a visa to visit her grandkids in Baltimore. I’ve fought for years to ensure that we expand this important program in a way that keeps our borders secure while allowing travelers who want nothing other than to see family, conduct business, or tour our great country to do so without going through a long and expensive process. This bill updates the Visa Waiver Program so that our State Department may direct limited consular resources where they are needed most to keep our country safe and secure.”

“At a time when we’re facing lagging job growth, boosting our tourism industry will help to jumpstart much-needed job creation and spur economic opportunity in Missouri and nationwide,” said Senator Blunt. “This bill is an important step in the right direction, and I was glad to join my colleagues on both sides of the aisle as we work to cut through the red tape and encourage more international travel to the United States. By streamlining our visa processing system without jeopardizing our nation’s security, we can welcome more international visitors and provide new opportunities for private sector job creators.”
“Despite its strong support for the United States, Poland remains one of the only major democratic U.S. allies to be excluded from the Visa Waiver Program," a spokesperson for Senator Kirk said. "This legislation would fulfill the President’s commitment to a strong democratic ally and bring Poland into the Visa Waiver Program while providing a needed boost to America’s tourism industry.  Tourism supported more than 100,000 jobs and brought more than $10 billion to Illinois last year alone. Common sense updates to the Visa Waiver Program are overdue and this bipartisan approach should move through Congress quickly."
International travel to the United States represents a significant component of the United States’ economy. Studies show that, on average, each overseas visitor spends about $4,000 in America per visit. In 2011, foreign nationals spent more than $134 billion total in travel to America. This spending supported 1.8 million American jobs, and represented 8.7 percent of U.S. exports of goods and services. However, in the past ten years the United States market share of worldwide overseas travel market has dropped from a 17 percent share to less than 12 percent.
The senators highlighted that a key reason for that is the United States’ inefficient and antiquated visa system, which is highly uncertain, lengthy and costly. 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 is non-refundable, and must often be combined with other costs such as travel to distant consulates and lost work time—all of which makes travel to America less appealing.

The JOLT Act aims to encourage the State Department to issue Chinese visitor visas that last longer than the current 1-year maximum; permit Canadian “snowbird” visitors to stay in the United States for an additional 60 days per year; and change the visa fee structure to spread the demand for visas evenly across all four seasons, increasing total visa numbers. The legislation also would allow Customs and Border Protection to add important foreign dignitaries to the global entry program on a “case-by-case” basis, establish tough standards for visa processing times, and make critical changes to the Visa Waiver Program to update the eligibility criteria and make the program more secure.   

A full summary of the senators’ proposal to help boost lagging international travel to the United States appears below.
Summary of The Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (“JOLT”) Act
Sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer, Mike Lee, Amy Klobuchar, Roy Blunt, Barbara Mikulski, Marco Rubio & Mark Kirk
Expediting Priority Visitors
Currently, many spontaneous travelers do not travel to the United States because of the waiting times for visas.   Just as the State Department charges an extra fee to expedite the processing of a U.S. passport, and USCIS charges an extra fee to expedite the processing of an immigration application, so too should the State Department charge an extra fee to expedite the processing of a nonimmigrant visa.
This section requires the Secretary of State to develop “premium processing” for B-1 and B-2 visas (tourist and business travel visas).   Under premium processing, unless compelling security concerns exist, a visa will be issued within 3 business days from the date a visa is requested.  
This section also authorizes the State Department to charge a fee sufficient to recover the costs of premium processing and to recover costs that will increase capacity to more quickly process B-1 and B-2 visas in India, China, and Brazil through the use of: (1) technology; and (2) creation of “mobile interview units” to process visa applications and to conduct visa interviews in cities of over 1,000,000 people with no U.S. embassy or consulate.  This will ultimately lead to faster processing of all visa applications.
Encouraging Canadian Tourism to the United States
Under current law, without a visa, Canadian citizens are not permitted to remain in the United States for longer than 180 days.  Many Canadians would remain in the United States for a longer period of time during periods when Canadian weather is still cold if they had a legal ability to do so.  In addition, Canadians who currently return to Canada after 180 days are unable to take day-trips across the border to northern-border-states in America.
This bill allows Canadians who are: (1) over age 50 (with derivative benefits to a spouse and minor children); (2) who can show that they own a residence in the United States or have purchased rental or hotel accommodations in the United States for the duration of their stay; and (3) are not otherwise inadmissible – to stay at least 240 days per year.  These Canadians are not permitted to have work authorization for this visa or access to any government benefits.   This visa will spur Canadian consumption in the United States.
Encouraging Chinese Tourism to the United States
Currently,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.  As Chinese applicants are treated differently, the State Department must dedicate significant resources to processing visa renewals, rather than facilitating legitimate travel by new visitors.
A one-year visa expiration is disruptive and expensive not only for Chinese visa applicants, but also for American businesses and universities.  If Chinese travelers want to take an annual trip to the United States, and do not live in a city where a U.S. consulate is located, they must incur hundreds or thousands of dollars in expenses (and take time off from their work or studies) to complete the mandatory face-to face interview.
This bill encourages the State Department to issue Chinese nationals longer visas than one year.
Incentives for Foreign Visitors Visiting the United States During Low Peak Seasons
One of the greatest contributing factors to high visa demand is the summer travel season. Given that visa interview wait times typically lengthen during the summer months, this bill permits the State Department to lower visa application fees during off-peak seasons to give travelers the incentive to apply for visas when demand is lower.  The overall increase in visa application volume is estimated to make up for lower per-application fees.  By increasing incentives and tiered peak and off-peak fees, the State Department can begin to spread demand across all four seasons and make visa demand more manageable overall.
Updating the Visa Waiver Program
Currently, Poland is the only member of the 25-country Schengen area not able to travel to the United States under the US Visa Waiver program .  The Visa Waiver program gives citizens of selected countries the ability to travel to the US under the ESTA program, rather than go through the more lengthy and complicated US Tourist Visa application process.  Poland has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. over the past two decades on issues that include deployment of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, willingness to serve as a forward outpost for our missile defense shield, and being a reliable voice on behalf of the trans-Atlantic partnership in European Union councils.

This section amends the Immigration and Nationality Act regarding the visa waiver program to: (1) authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS), in consultation with the Secretary of State, to designate program countries; (2) adjust the criteria for visa refusal rates to permit entry into the program if a country has a low visa overstay rate; (3) set a maximum 3% visa overstay rate for program countries; and (4) revise probationary status and program termination provisions.  It also directs the Comptroller General to review the Secretary of Homeland Security’s methods for tracking aliens entering and exiting the United States and for detecting visa overstays.  These revisions would likely lead to Poland’s admission into the Visa Waiver Program.

Expediting Entry for Priority Visitors
The global entry program is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. Though intended for frequent international travelers, there is no minimum number of trips necessary to qualify for the program.  Participants may enter the United States by using automated kiosks located at select airports.
At the moment, U.S. Customs and Border Protection lacks the ability to add specific foreign nationals to the global-entry prescreening system if they are not nationals of one of the “participating countries” that the United States has a reciprocal agreement with.  This creates problems for certain high-priority visitors with decision-making capacity to bring important international events—such as the Olympics, the World Cup, conventions, etc.—to the United States.
This section would permit Customs and Border Protection to add important foreign dignitaries to the global entry program on a “case-by-case” basis if they are employed by an organization that maintains a strong working relationship with the United States and do not pose security risks.
Expediting Visa Processing
This section sets standards for visa processing which says that, upon enactment, visa interviews should be conducted within 15 days of requesting an appointment. 1 year after enactment, visa interviews should be conducted within 10 days of requesting an appointment.  There are exceptions to these processing times for security reasons and for national emergencies.