The US is reportedly considering adding Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania and Israel to its Visa Waiver Program (VWP), US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has announced.
In a statement, Mayorkas said: “We have four candidates in the pipeline: Israel, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania. We’re very, very focused on the program.”
The four countries under consideration have long lobbied to be included in the US Visa Waiver Program, which would enable their citizens to visit the United States for up to 90 days, visa-free, for tourism and business purposes. Currently, any national of these four countries must undergo an arduous visa application process, even if they’re only visiting the US briefly.
Israel raises US visa waiver issue
In an August meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett raised the issue of Israel’s inclusion in the VWP. At the time, Biden said: “Mr Bennett and I are going to direct our teams to work toward Israel fulfilling the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program and get that done.”
According to the US Department of Homeland Security website, the VWP ‘utilizes a risk-based, multi-layered approach to detect and prevent terrorists, serious criminals, and other mala fide actors from traveling to the United States’.
Croatia recently accepted
The European Commission has lobbied for years in urging US authorities to include the remaining EU countries in the VWP. In 2018, some members of the EU Parliament even called on the Commission to reinstate visa requirements for US citizens in a reciprocity measure. However, the Commission decided against this action.
Meanwhile, Israel has welcomed Mr Mayorkas’s comments. Israeli Ambassador to the US, Gilad Erdan, said: “We’re continuing to work at full power so that Israeli citizens can enter the United States freely without the need for a visa, as is fitting for our closest ally.”
“The clear statement from Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas… is a very significant advancement toward achieving that goal,” Erdan added.
Israel failing to fulfil criteria
Currently, Israel is failing to fulfil the eligibility criteria to qualify for acceptance into the VWP, largely because the country’s citizens have a high US visa rejection rate. In August, Erdan reported that the rejection rate for Israeli applicants for US visas is 4.5%.
However, the US visa rejection rate must be below 3% to enter the US VWP. According to Erdan, the rejection rate is based on a ‘misunderstanding’ since many of those rejected are young Israelis who have recently finished their mandatory army service.
Erdan said: “Those reviewing the requests see a 22- or 23-year-old who still doesn’t have an academic degree or a decent job and assume that they’re trying to illegally immigrate.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli ambassador to the US said that the US visa overstay rate among Israeli citizens is among the lowest of all countries at 0.5%. Mr Erdan said that he was ‘optimistic’ that the misunderstanding over visa rejections will soon be rectified.
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