At this point, the global audience has become well accustomed to the crisscrossing debate surrounding the US Presidential election. As it stands, citizens of Visa Waiver Program member countries, currently formed of 38 countries, can travel to the USA with ESTA, instead of having to request a US visa.
However, if Republican candidate Donald Trump takes the win this November, this could result in significant policy changes that affect how non-US citizens can travel to the country. As it stands, Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton is leading the polls, but in this article we’re going to look at how the spectrum would change if Donald Trump were elected, and the effects that this could have on ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program.
First things first, Trump has been very vocal about his views on border control and immigration. Whilst a large part of this policy was initially based on the idea of securing the border between the USA and Mexico, Trump expanded on his ideas significantly in light of terrorist attacks suffered in Europe and the USA over the past year. Essentially, his concerns are based on the idea of ‘strangers’ entering the USA – people with no documentation and whose background and history are unknown. This is relevant in terms of immigration, but also in terms of general tourism and travel to the USA.
This is where the Visa Waiver Program is relevant. Given that, currently, citizens of VWP member countries can travel to the USA using ESTA – the Electronic System for Travel Authorization – this system goes against how Trump would like to vet visitors. The ESTA works by automatically pre-approving successful applicants to travel to the USA, based on a range of questions asked in the ESTA form, the travel history of applicants and the risk level of their home countries. The fact that it is automatic is why travelers can receive their approved ESTAs so quickly, within 24 hours of completing their online ESTA application. It is one of the primary components that makes it such a popular and convenient system. Nevertheless, this is precisely why Donald Trump has called for an end to the Visa Waiver Program.
Trump’s concerns around security and a need for extreme vetting are strongly linked to his Muslim ban proposal. Back in December 2015, the Republican candidate called for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States. His campaign released this statement: ‘Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on’. This suggestion caused major controversy, but Trump stuck firmly to it. That is, until around March. After a few months of letting the idea stew, Trump later suggested that such a ban would be temporary. He also offered an exemption for Muslims who are political or sports figures. Now, eight months on, his focus has shifted away from a Muslim ban, and moved towards a policy whereby he would keep out people from countries that have been ‘compromised’ by terrorism. This is a very different concept, as it covers a far larger variety of religions, as well as countries that stretch from Western Europe to the Middle East. At this point, it is unclear how this could be effectively implemented, but many experts have deliberated on the matter.
When it comes to visa applications, Trump suggests that the United States subject applicants to an ideological test before they are allowed to enter the country. This would allow for people whose opinions are deemed ‘un-American’ to be blocked. But of course, beyond tourists and visitors in general, Trump’s call for a Muslim ban and extreme vetting are particularly based around immigration. Immigration has been a key part of Trump’s discourse ever since he announced his candidacy, and of course, in order to firmly limit immigration to the extent that he wants, he would need to put strict measures into place with regard to vetting visitors of any sort.
At the moment, the level of vetting goes from minimum, for people who are deemed high-value and low-risk (as is the case with the Visa Waiver Program), to strict, for people who are deemed low-value and high-risk. In order to implement Trump’s proposal of a blanket Muslim ban, or ideological ban, this would depend on major changes to this system, where everybody is ‘extremely’ vetted, requiring modifications on a huge scale to current policies and mechanisms in place.
In fact, it is widely believed that it would be impossible to implement a ban of a religious nature, and that it would turn immigration into a standstill. For one, very few countries actually track a citizen’s religion. It’s not something that’s recorded in the same way that a person’s nationality or criminal background is. This would make it near-impossible when it comes to red tape. If this ‘extreme, extreme vetting’ covered visa applicants’ beliefs, this would require tens of thousands of extra agents, and would essentially be a subjective process. In turn, travel to the States would probably come to a halt under these circumstances, and it would be incredibly difficult to travel there as a tourist.
And then we have the financial side of this. Generally, it is thought that to implement vetting of this nature, the current US immigration system would need to multiply its spending significantly. If at the moment this system involves an expense of a little over $20 billion per year, we can quickly see that the expense of Trump’s vetting would blow this figure through the roof.
Expenses aside, what could be lost by implementing this plan? First of all, we have to consider income from tourism. ESTA travel represents 60% of overseas visitors to the USA, who, on a yearly basis, spend some $80 billion. If Trump were to close the Visa Waiver Program as part of this Muslim ban, or extreme vetting policy, the country would instantly lose a major source of income. On top of this, losing all Muslim tourism would cost another $18 billion or so.
The potential impact on non-US travelers visiting the USA would be, on the one hand, the eradication of the Visa Waiver Program. Instead of applying for ESTA online, citizens of Visa Waiver Programs would have to apply for visas like other foreign nationals. And with this in mind, and the extra bureaucracy involved in processing visas, it is likely that the waiting time would increase significantly.
Nevertheless, owing to the huge effort, amount of resources and unprecedented complications that would be involved in implementing these policies, it seems unlikely that they could materialize. The ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program are highly beneficial to the United States, and indeed to citizens of the program’s member countries, representing a significant and continuous investment in the country.
It’s unlikely that the Visa Waiver Program would be shut down, but it is perfectly possible that the next government, whether Republican or Democrat, will decide to tighten the program further and put more rigid restrictions in place. The policies suggested by Trump are the extreme end of the scale, but many citizens and politicians agree that it’s important to ensure national security wherever possible, and protect the wellbeing of US citizens and visitors. This is the reason the ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program are in place, serving as a type of vetting procedure whilst encouraging tourism from low-risk countries. Nevertheless, the political climate is constantly changing, and it’s inevitable that this program, which has proved highly successful since it was first put into place, will continue to develop and mold according to international circumstances.
For the time being, it’s as easy as it ever was to apply for ESTA online. There are certain questions on the online ESTA application form that are there to protect US security, and must be answered honestly. However, the form is still easy to complete and can be filled in and submitted within around ten minutes. Upon arriving in the USA, travelers always have to go through border patrol, and this is another opportunity for officials to assess whether they should be allowed into the country (the final decision always lies with the official border patrol agents). So, although being fast and easy, the ESTA still serves as a fairly rigorous security system in terms of vetting visitors, whilst avoiding the hassle of applying for a US visa.