For a copy of this briefing's audio file, please contact the Foreign Press Center.
11:00 A.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center on this busy day. We appreciate you coming. We’ve having this on-the-record briefing today on the implementation of a fee for travelers from Visa Waiver Program countries. With us today is David Donahue, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services from the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department, and Maureen Dugan, who is the Assistant Executive Director for Admissibility and Passenger Programs at Customs and Border Protection.
First, Mr. Donahue will speak and then Ms. Dugan, and then they’ll take your questions.
MR. DONAHUE: Well, good morning and I want to thank you all for coming. We’re excited that you’re here. We’re excited to get the message out about changes in the visa and the ESTA program for Visa Waiver countries.
The reason we’re here today is to talk about the changes, particularly the fee that’s being introduced for the ESTA program, Electronic System for Travel Authority – authorization?
MS. DUGAN: Authorization.
MR. DONAHUE: Authorization. And we also can talk a little bit about the Travel Promotion. We don’t have anyone here from Commerce, but we can address that. We know there’s a lot of questions and there’ll be plenty of time to ask questions after the presentations.
We have been very involved in outreach throughout the Visa Waiver countries about the new fee, I think very successfully. We’re seeing large numbers of people who are registering for ESTA now, so they know that the fee is coming. We are very pleased with the cooperation of the press and of the national governments that are involved in Visa Waiver countries. We’ve had a wonderful rollout of the ESTA program, very high participation rates, near the 99 percent levels. And the refusal rate has been well below 1 percent for the ESTA program, so we think it’s been a great success in every way. And it adds great security to the traveling public to have these travelers reviewed beforehand, and it also provides convenience to travelers that they don’t arrive in the United States only to find out that they’re not admissible for some reason. It gives a chance for us to review them before they arrive here. And many travelers have found out that they need a visa, for instance, before they travel rather than traveling all the way to the United States and having to go back and apply for a visa outside the United States.
I want to introduce my colleague from Customs and Border Protection, Maureen Dugan, and allow her to make a presentation.
MS. DUGAN: Thank you and thank you all for coming this morning. Appreciate you coming out to join us and it’s certainly with your help that we are able to outreach and get the message out to stakeholders and the traveling public, so appreciate you coming out today.
My name is Maureen Dugan and I am the Acting Executive Director for Admissibility and Passenger Programs within Customs and Border Protection, so our office deals with everything having to do with passenger travel policy, programs, and technology. And our office deals very closely with the State Department. We partnered on the rollout of ESTA and, again as Mr. Donahue mentioned, was very successful in a rather short time frame in terms of getting the messaging to the travelers that we needed to.
As you know, the Visa Waiver Program currently enables citizens and nationals of the 36 designated countries to travel to the U.S. for temporary business, for pleasure, for 90 days or less. After the events of 9/11, there was some concern that there needed to be additional security to the program because travelers did not have any pre-vetting before boarding flights and traveling to the U.S. And so what came out of that was the recommendations in the 2007 act, which is called Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The short title is the 9/11 Act. And in that legislation we were mandated to stand up a program that automatically vetted the Visa Waiver Program applicants before their arrival. So what came out of that was the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, as you know.
We think that in order to first get outreach to the traveling public and also to ensure that the carriers were aware, and we had an interactive system with the carriers and we made the requirement mandatory in January of 2009. And as of March 2010, we now require the carriers to ensure that they do the appropriate screening and deny boarding to those individuals who do not have the approved authorization.
We work very closely with the carriers to ensure that we were not missing individuals who wanted to travel and wanted to do the right thing, but maybe were not aware of that, show up at the ticket counter and do not have the authorization, so we work closely with them. And in many cases, they have means of facilitating those travelers, actually at the airport, to apply at that time for the travel authorization.
With the program and with the legislation, the legislation allowed CBP to charge a fee in order to run the program. And what happened at the same time was the – at the same time that we were developing the fee was Congress enacted the Travel Promotion Act, which was signed by the President in March of 2010. And with that, the Travel Promotion Act requires that we accept a fee of $10 with – along with the ESTA fee. So the total fee for the applicant is $14 -- $10 going for the travel promotion and a $4 fee for the administration of the actual program that we run.
So – and that’s the reason, of course, that we asked you out here today to – as a gentle reminder and get that message out to your public that effective September 8th will be the date when the fee will be imposed along with the time when they apply for the ESTA.
As Mr. Donohue mentioned, we continue to have a very successful learning program. The vast majority of applicants are approved for their ESTA, over 99 percent of those are approved, and nearly all of the travelers that we see do have the requirement before arriving at the ticket counter. A very small number have to apply elsewhere.
One of the goals of the program when we established it was to get rid of the paper form, and we’ve been able to do that successfully this past summer, to phase that in. So we now have the ESTA application take the place of the paper form and we have automated that successfully.
One of the concerns, or many of the questions that we received, are in terms of how the fees will be taken. Currently, as I said, the Travel Promotion Act was passed in March of 2010 and it mandated that we stand up the fee collection within six months, so that gets us to September. It’s a pretty aggressive timeline, so we had to do the systems changes, the security changes, and the programmatic changes fairly quickly, as well, of course, the outreach to the public and our partners and our foreign partners. All of that had happened fairly quickly and so we’re also continuing to make sure that the system is as user friendly as possible.
So we want to facilitate your stakeholders to the extent possible and we continue to actually make improvements to the system, particularly where we get feedback from the traveling public, from the applicants to say, “Well, this may not have worked as well. Can you improve on this?” So this will help us continue to improve that application.
So as of September 8, when we start to take the fee, it will be to our pay.gov website, which is secure. All the information is encrypted. The payment can only be taken through credit card or debit card – MasterCard, Visa, American Express, or Discover. And I know that’s a concern to many. We are looking at expanding the ability to take fees in other venues as well.
As you know, the applicant can use a third party to make the application and also to provide the payment. So for those travelers who may not have one of those credit cards or debit cards, they will soon have the option of going through their travel agent or another third party to provide that.
So with that, I open it up to questions and welcome any of your comments as well as any questions.
My name is Renzo Ruf. I’m here with Swiss newspapers. Can you give us some numbers when it comes to those 99 percent participation rate or the refusal rate below 1 percent? I mean, we’re talking about millions or – MS. DUGAN:
Well, we see between 15 to 18 million Visa Waiver Program travelers annually. Those are the larger numbers in terms of the actual – as to refusal rates, I’d have to do the math or look at the actual application numbers. But it’s rather small.
Good morning. My name is Dagmar Benesova. I’m from Slovakia’s World Business Press Online News Agency. Well, I have a couple of questions if you don’t mind. With the previous old system when the visa – the tourists entering the U.S. should ask for a visa, they had a possibility to appeal against the decision of immigration officer or by the border patrol if they were refused to enter the country in court. However, with the new Visa Waiver Program, the ESTA, they do not have this chance to appeal in court. So my question is that with this fee, with this $14 U.S. dollar fee for ESTA, do they have the chance back to avail in front of the judge?
And then I have another question. Please, could you describe the procedure of appealing in court against the decision when the tourists are denied to enter the U.S.? How long does it take, if the process is on paper or in a normal courtroom or what is the procedure exactly? What is the best (inaudible)? Thank you very much.MS. DUGAN:
Okay, I’ll try to – if I lose track of the questions, please feel free to let me know. But under the Visa Waiver Program – and that’s under 217 of our Immigration and Nationality Act – by applying under that program, essentially the applicant waves any right to appeal our decision as to his or her admissibility. So the ESTA application is the application towards that Visa Waiver Program application.
So if an applicant wants additional rights, the recommendation would be to apply for a visa, in which case again, the visa allows you to travel to the U.S., but it does not necessarily provide any rights to a decision.
We have what’s called an expedited removal process under 235 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which if there are certain – under certain conditions, we can remove the applicant without any procedure before an immigration judge. So there’s very limited grounds of admissibility fit within that. But what happens with the – so I hope I answered the first question. MR. DONAHUE:
Let me just add there’s no change. The fee – MS. DUGAN:
The fee didn’t change – QUESTION:
The change – the fee doesn’t change the – MR. DONAHUE:
This is – since the Visa Waiver Program began in the – ’92? ’93? MS. DUGAN:
Well, it started in the ‘80s as a pilot. So it’s ’88, I think.MR. DONAHUE:
Anyway, all Visa Waiver travelers have agreed that they would accept the decision at the port of entry. So that has not changed at all.QUESTION:
So the fee doesn’t make changes? And if you could answer the next part in the question? So if you could describe the procedure for those who maybe have a visa and they are not allowed to enter the country. What can they expect?MS. DUGAN:
For someone with a visa who’s not allowed to enter?QUESTION:
Again, it depends on what the inadmissibility ground is and if it involves fraud or something to do with the identity or the travel document, we can process under our expedited removal procedures in which case there’s no hearing before an immigration judge. It’s an administrative proceeding that happens at the port of entry. We would take a sworn statement from the applicant and there’s a certain legal requirement to establish that inadmissibility and, at that point, we would remove them on next available flight. In some cases, we – another administrative function – we allow the applicant to simply withdraw his application, which means there’s no further penalty. With an expedited removal, there’s a five-year bar to return to the country.QUESTION:
Thank you. So if I understand it correctly, the tourist is expedited back to the home country and then can wait until the hearing or something like this in the U.S.?MS. DUGAN:
Well, in the expedited removal process, there is no hearing. So those are under certain conditions if – as I said, if there’s fraud or something to do with the document. If it’s another type of inadmissibility ground and we provide for a hearing before an immigration judge, it may take a number of weeks before the person sees the judge. At that point, the person does have the ability to have legal representation at the hearing to rebut whatever charges the U.S. Government brings forward.
But generally, we would try to – in general, the applicant will concede to do a withdrawal, because if there’s no penalty, they can simply reapply for a visa or overcome – try to overcome what the inadmissibility was previously. But with an expedited removal or a removal before and immigration judge, there is a penalty in terms of when the person can return. So in many cases, it’s best just to withdraw the application.QUESTION:
Rita Stankeviciute from Lithuania. Is it also five years for people who were rejected with the ESTA approval at the port of entry?MS. DUGAN:
No, well, the ESTA denial means that you haven’t been given travel authorization. So at that point, the recommendation is go to the embassy to apply for a visa. So it may mean that you can still travel, just that you can’t travel under the visa waiver program.QUESTION:
No, but sometimes, there’s a lot of cases people aren’t approved by ESTA and then they’ll arrive and at the port of entry – MS. DUGAN:
Right, and if it is a Visa Waiver Program applicant and they’re denied entry, it’s simply a refusal under that section of law and that means is the penalty is that you may no longer apply under the Visa Waiver Program. You now have to apply for a visa. So once you’ve been denied under that section, under the Visa Waiver Program section, you may not use that for a subsequent visit. You have to then apply for a visa on any subsequent visits.QUESTION:
And there’s no five-year ban, then?MS. DUGAN:
And do you have the numbers of how many people are rejected at the port of entry, like when the ESTA – MS. DUGAN:
With all inadmissibilities, it’s approximately 200,000 annually, but that’s not specific to Visa Waiver Program applicants. Those are all of our inadmissibilities.QUESTION:
So if I can ask, is this 200,000 from 15 million tourists and --MS. DUGAN:
Oh, no, it’s from 450 million. The 15 million is only those applicants from Visa Waiver Program.QUESTION:
Right, right. But we see 450 million travelers annually.
I’m Satoshi Ogawa from Yomiuri Shimbun Japanese newspaper. I would like to ask a question on ESTA to the number of travelers. Who will you predict the degrees or number of travelers because of the fee?MS. DUGAN:
Yes, we did have to do that in terms of assessing the fee. So the question was, if I take you correctly, that we predicted the number of travelers; is that correct? Is that what you’re asking?QUESTION:
The -- MS. DUGAN:
Basically yeah, in the future (inaudible). MS. DUGAN:
Right. We did project for the next five years when we did our fee analysis, so we did to the best of our ability based on what the trends were. Of course, we can’t be entirely accurate. So generally, what happens with any type of fee is that after a number of years, you do another assessment to make sure that the fee is fair and accurate based on the travel. Because it is a user fee, so it’s tied to those numbers of travelers that we’re seeing. So we won’t do another assessment and potentially adjust that fee.QUESTION:
A prediction of this?MR. DONAHUE:
Wondered whether we think that there will be less travelers because of the fee.MS. DUGAN:
Oh, that – I think that that was – we have an economist who looks at that, and that was considered to be essentially negligible, so there was – there would potentially be people who didn’t want to travel because of the fee. But overall, there would not be a significant impact, but that’s – I can’t really speak to that because I’m not an economist, but that’s how they projected it.QUESTION:
Tamara Land, German Public Radio. Can you elaborate on this fee in general? I understand that $4 will be for administration and all, but almost two-thirds of the fee are the travel promotion fee. Could you elaborate on what that is?MS. DUGAN:
The Travel Promotion Act, which was passed in March of 2010, mandates that we take a $10 fee from the Visa Waiver Program travelers through ESTA in order to set up a board that will promote travel to the U.S. and message to the traveling public and facilitate travel to the U.S., both through outreach and our processes. So the $10 is to go to this organization that will promote travel to the U.S. MR. DONAHUE:
It’s a matching fund that will be met – matched by the private sector. And the idea is very much – many of your countries have national tourist boards or have a ministry of tourism. We don’t have that in the United States. And there has been a lot of interest in investing in promoting tourism to the United States. We’ve seen all of your wonderful ads about coming to your countries. I think there’s been a lot of interest in having similar outreaches to your countries to bring your citizens here. It’s a very important industry in the United States. We consider it to be an export as far as how it affects our balance payments. And so we consider it a major part of the Administration’s effort to double our exports.MODERATOR:
We have time for two more questions, please. Two more questions.QUESTION:
(Inaudible) visa fee for normal visitors. MR. DONAHUE:
For most visitor visas. A B-1, B-2 category is $140.MODERATOR:
Is there someone who hasn’t asked a question? QUESTION:
Yes, Anne Walters with the German Press Agency. I’m curious as to whether you’ve seen a surge in applications before the fee goes into effect. Have people been sort of trying to beat the fee?MS. DUGAN:
Yes, we have. And we encourage that. So the fee, as we said, goes into effect September 8. So we encourage anyone who thinks they even may be traveling to apply now. We have seen a significant increase as a matter of fact and we expected to see that. When – once we announced the interim final rule, which implemented the fee, we immediately started to see a buildup. And before that announcement we were averaging between 40 and 50,000 applicants per day and the past couple of days, we’ve seen over 100,000. So we have seen – and it has gradually grown, but obviously significant.
And as we’ve done our outreach through your countries and in elsewhere, we often got the question as to whether we would impose a fee and as we were working on that, we encouraged folks to apply now because the authorization is valid for two years. So while we were working on whether or not we were going to impose a fee, it’s encouraging to apply now, and even if you just thought you might be traveling. So please feel free to message that as well: You still have a few days before the fee goes into effect. And the authorization is valid for two years or until the passport expires. So it’s a good thing to do.QUESTION:
Before the authorizing these $4 fee for administration, the ESTA Visa Waiver issued were free without any fee. So were there any losses or (inaudible)?MS. DUGAN:
I’m sorry. Were there any – QUESTION:
Losses like for economy because there were no administrations fee before.MS. DUGAN:
Well, we – much of what we did to build the program we took out of our own budget within customs support protection. So we have had no budget towards the program since the initial – we had some initial moneys appropriated to start up the program. But since that time, we’ve just been taking it from within our own budget and once we did the fee analysis, we also projected what that would mean for the out years as well to administer.
And certainly we want to make the website robust. We wanted to make it user friendly. We want to make sure that there’s redundancy and doesn’t go down, we don’t have outages, and all of that and ensure that it’s secure. So all of those things cost money and that goes into the administrative cost, and making sure that the public’s questions can be answered, those kinds of things go into the administrative cost.MODERATOR:
We have time for one more question.QUESTION:
The Japanese Government has announced the objection to the ESTA fee as well as other European countries, because it’s not saying that this is not consistent with the Visa Waiver Program. How do you respond to that? And from how many countries have you received such objection?MS. DUGAN:
I don’t know how many countries we’ve received objections from. I know that it was not popular with the European Union as well. But there are many countries that impose entry and exit fees. So we don’t see that this is inconsistent with the Visa Waiver Program.
There are 56 plus countries that impose entry-exit fees and they are in – within the ticket or within some other tax. So we see this – we don’t see that this is inconsistent with the Visa Waiver Program. And in terms of the Travel Promotion Act, that portion of the fee is mandated and it’s specifically to promote travel to the U.S. So as Mr. Donahue mentioned, that’s consistently what many countries do in terms of their ministry of travel and tourism.MODERATOR:
We don’t have time any more questions. However, you already have Jean’s phone number and my number’s on the press release from CBP Public Affairs. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact us. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
# # #