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Publish Date: 
Monday, August 4, 2014
Crain's New York Business

Why would anyone want to limit the number of visitors from Brazil, Israel, Poland and other U.S.-friendly countries with hordes of wealthy travelers eager to spend their money here?

Surprisingly, these nations—along with Argentina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Panama, Romania and Uruguay—are not among the 38 that can send tourists and businesspeople here for up to 90 days without a visa.

Some politicians in the U.S. fear that visitors from these countries would stay longer than permitted, creating a security risk, and therefore should be required to get visas. Imagine a mall trying to deter loitering by locking its doors and forcing each shopper to apply for entry.

New York City hospitality businesses have joined a national tourism-industry effort to persuade Congress to pass legislation tweaking the Visa Waiver Program's admissions criteria. It would sweep in the aforementioned nine nations by virtue of their visa applicants' rejection rates, which are low but just above the current threshold.
The bill would particularly benefit New York: The city is a favorite destination of foreigners, who account for more than 20% of our 50 million-plus annual visitors and an outsize 50% of their spending. Brazil is the Big Apple's second-largest overseas feeder market. And 18% of international travelers to the U.S. arrive in New York first. Deep-pocketed South Americans are not desperate to visit Dubuque.

But the legislation, called the Jolt Act, would certainly help the national economy as well. It would trigger an estimated 600,000 annual visits and create 42,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association. The nations that would get visa-waiver status are close allies of the U.S. and have security measures in place on par with countries already in the program.

The Senate has passed the bill, but in the House it is tied to comprehensive immigration reform, which Republicans have declared dead for this year. Some House members have said the Jolt Act must be accompanied by a system that scans fingerprints or retinas of people entering and exiting the country. But there is no funding to create such a system, and some conservative groups oppose the use of biometric technology. The screening-system demand is either a congressional poison pill or an excuse for inaction.

However, there is a chance that the Jolt Act will be included in an appropriations bill, which would provide political cover for immigrant-phobic representatives. That's a promising path to passage this year, and probably the only one. Congress should take it.