Letter urges Biden administration to include Israel in visa waiver

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of House members on Monday sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging them to add Israel to the visa waiver program. Representatives Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1), Kathleen Rice (D, NY-4), Michelle Fischbach (R, MN-7), Grace Meng (D, NY-6), Brian Mast (R, FL-18) and Elaine Luria (D, VA-2) led the letter, and 52 other members have joined.

“We are writing to support Israel’s participation in the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows citizens and nationals of participating countries to travel to the United States to ‘to 90 days without getting a visa,’ the lawmakers wrote.

“We are encouraged by Secretary Mayorkas’ remarks last month confirming that Israel is in the ‘pipeline’ to be added to the program,” they noted. “These remarks follow a bilateral meeting in August between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, at which Israel’s participation in the VWP was discussed.

According to lawmakers, Israeli travelers account for $ 1.2 billion in annual spending, with an average of $ 4,000 in personal spending per trip.

“Israel’s participation in this program would grow the US economy, strengthen national security at each of our borders, and increase opportunities for people-to-people exchanges, which strengthens our already unique bilateral relationship,” the letter said.

US Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas holds a press conference in Brownsville, Texas (Credit: GO NAKAMURA / REUTERS)

“We know you share the goal of ensuring that the benefits that the visa waiver program promises to US tourism, our country’s national security and the US-Israel relationship are realized,” they continued. “We therefore urge you to quickly add Israel to the visa waiver program and provide Congress with an update on the status of the ongoing negotiations.”

Last week Home Secretary Ayelet Shaked arrived in Washington to meet with Mayorkas and discuss the visa waiver program. After the meeting, she estimated that the process of granting a visa waiver for Israeli travelers to the United States by including Israel in the U.S. visa waiver program will not be completed until 2023.

“I had an excellent meeting with Secretary Mayorkas,” she told The Jerusalem Post after the meeting. “There is a mutual desire for this to be successful. “

The two decided to establish government teams to address the remaining challenges. The US team will visit Israel in January, and Shaked and Mayorkas will follow up once a month.

“We have agreed that a team of US officials will arrive in Israel in January to discuss additional details that need to be worked out,” Shaked continued. “We have two main tasks: the first is to establish a system that would allow US immigration officials to check whether a certain person seeking entry has a criminal record – the US could investigate some 1,000 Israelis per year. That would require us to make some adjustments, such as a legislative change to allow the United States to access our criminal records system. “

The second task, she said, is to reduce Israel’s refusal rates to 3% by September 2022. “There are several things that can be done to reach this threshold,” Shaked noted. “For example, we asked the Mayorkas team that if a person opens a visa application but ends up not submitting it, it won’t count as a refusal. Today, such cases count as if a person who had not completed the form was rejected, ”she explained.

“Another reason for refusal is the large number of applicants in their early twenties. [Former ambassador to Washington] Gilad Erdan raised this issue during his meetings at DHS and explained that in Israel, many people in their 20s go on a long trip after their military service.

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