Letter urges Biden administration to include Israel in visa waiver

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of House members sent a letter on Monday to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security 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) spearheaded the letter, and additional 52 members joined it.

“We write to you in support of Israel’s participation in U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows citizens and nationals of participating countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining 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, where Israel’s participation in the VWP was discussed.”

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

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

US Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas holds news conference in Brownsville, Texas (credit: GO NAKAMURA/REUTERS)US Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas holds news conference in Brownsville, Texas (credit: GO NAKAMURA/REUTERS)

“We know you share in the goal of ensuring that the benefits that the Visa Waiver Program promises to U.S. tourism, to our country’s national security, and to the U.S.-Israel relationship are realized,” they continued. “We therefore urge you to expediently add Israel to the Visa Waiver Program and provide an update to Congress on the status of the current negotiations.”

Last week, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked arrived in Washington to meet with Mayorkas and discuss the visa waiver program. After the meeting, she estimated that the process to grant a visa exemption for Israeli travelers to the US by including Israel in the US Visa Waiver Program will not be finished before 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 succeed.”

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

“We 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 primary tasks: The first is to establish a system that would allow the US immigration officers to check if a certain person who seeks entry has a criminal record – the US could inquire about some 1,000 Israelis a year. It would require us to make some adjustments, such as a legislative change to allow the US to access our criminal records system.”

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

“Another cause for refusal is the high volume of applicants in their early 20’s. [Former ambassador to Washington] Gilad Erdan raised this issue in his meetings at the DHS, and explained that in Israel, many people in their 20’s are going on a long trip after army service.”

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