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Immigration Bill Gives Hong Kong Access to the Visa Waiver Program

12:46 PM, Jun 24, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Speaking about Hong Kong's decision to let NSA leaker Edward Snowden leave, without handing him over to American authorities, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that "we find their decision particularly troubling." Carney added that their decision "unquestionably has a negative impact" on U.S.-Hong Kong relations, and called it a "setback."

Which is all very relevant to the immigration bill, which Congress is currently debating and which will be voted on later today in the Senate. That's because on pages 1020-1021, there's a special provision giving Hong Kong access to the Visa Waiver Program.

Here's the wording in the bill:

(h) ELIGIBILITY OF HONG KONG SPECIAL ADMINISTRATIVE REGION FOR DESIGNATION FOR PARTICIPATION IN VISA WAIVER PROGRAM FOR CERTAIN VISITORS TO THE UNITED STATES.—Section 217(c) (8 U.S.C. 1187(c)) is amended by adding at the end the following new paragraph:

‘‘(12) ELIGIBILITY OF CERTAIN REGION FOR DESIGNATION AS PROGRAM COUNTRY.—The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China—

‘‘(A) shall be eligible for designation as a program country for purposes of this sub- section; and

‘‘(B) may be designated as a program country for purposes of this subsection if such region meets requirements applicable for such designation in this subsection.’’.

The amendment to the bill was attached in the Judiciary Committee by Senator Mazie Hirono.

A one-page backgrounder for the amendment describes the Hong Kong provision like this: "The Visa Waiver Program (VWP), created in 1986, is an essential tool for promoting travel to America while protecting national security by allowing pre-cleared business and leisure travelers from 37 countries to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without obtaining a non-immigrant visitor visa. To qualify, countries must meet stringent security requirements, including a very low non-immigrant visa rejection rate, reciprocal treatment for U.S. citizens, passports with biometric identifiers, and close bilateral law enforcement cooperation with U.S. authorities. Hong Kong is strong in all these areas."

The Issue
Current U.S. law only allows “countries” in the VWP except provided for by law, which excludes Hong Kong from eligibility. In recognition of its self-governing status and economic importance, over 140 other countries and territories give visa free or visa on arrival privileges to Hong Kong passport holders. Hong Kong has already extended visa free treatment to U.S. citizens. ...

As a Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong has its own currency, free market economy, political system, civil liberties, and immigration policies. U.S. visa policy recognizes this autonomy in treating Hong Kong residents separately from those from Mainland China. Hong Kong residents have one of the lowest visitor visa rejection rates (1.7% in FY2012).

The Solution

Senator Hirono’s amendment would amend the law creating the VWP, Section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, to treat Hong Kong as a “program country” for purposes of VWP eligibility. Hong Kong must still meet all statutory requirements that every country must meet for inclusion in the VWP. 

One Senate aide, responding to the amendment in light of Snowden, says, "Hong Kong historically has had a close economic relationship with the U.S. so this amendment made a lot of sense when it was offered. But after they undermined our national security and let Snowden leave yesterday, are we really going to reward the Hong Kong government with Visa Waiver access?"

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