Published Thursday, June 13, 2013 | 4:47 p.m.
Updated Thursday, June 13, 2013 | 5:50 p.m.
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is being widely praised in the tourism community for submitting two amendments to the Senate’s immigration bill to better define and streamline a proposed entry-exit system for the country’s top 10 airports for international travelers.
U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow said Heller’s amendment to reduce wait times at the 10 airports by 50 percent will “give America an economic boost,” while Heller promised his amendments would “help to safeguard Nevada’s recovering tourism industry in a way that meets our nation’s border security needs.”
But it may take time before Nevada sees the fruits of Heller’s efforts. McCarran International Airport doesn't currently have enough international traffic to make the top 10 airports.
Heller’s first amendment would require that the Department of Homeland Security detail the specifics of a biometric entry-exit system that the Senate’s immigration bill rolls out at the 10 airports with the highest volumes of international traffic. By collecting passengers' information when they arrive in and exit the United States, the agency hopes to be able to better track visa overstays.
Heller’s second amendment would require Homeland Security come up with a plan to reduce wait times by 50 percent at the 10 airports that are part of the program.
According to McCarran officials, the airport had about 1.5 million international travelers in 2012. U.S. Customs and Border Protection processed 736,938 foreign visitors at McCarran International in fiscal year 2012.
But the top 10 airports for international travelers had from 2.8 to 12.3 million international passengers in 2012, according to Transportation Department data, and in fiscal 2012, Customs and Border Protection processed from 2.7 to 13 million foreign visitors.
According to the two agencies, the top 10 cities and airports (from most passengers to least) are: New York (JFK); Miami; Los Angeles (LAX); Newark, N.J.; Houston; Atlanta; Chicago; San Francisco; Washington (Dulles); and Dallas-Fort Worth.
Nevada officials think, however, that if Las Vegas sticks to its tourism enhancement plans, McCarran could break into the top 10 by the time the federal program is slated to go online. The immigration bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to launch the entry-exit program no later than Dec. 31, 2015.
About 6.5 million foreign tourists come to Las Vegas each year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which this week partnered with the U.S. Department of Commerce to try and increase foreign travel to Las Vegas. The LVCVA has said it wants to increase Las Vegas' share of international travelers from 17 percent of the overall tourist market to 30 percent by the end of this decade.
McCarran has seen the number of foreign travelers coming through U.S. Customs every year almost double since 2009. But those numbers would have to increase faster than that to break Las Vegas into the top 10 airports receiving special attention and resources under the immigration bill, and as a result of Heller’s proposed amendments.
In his efforts, Heller has the support of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Harry Reid, as well as LVCVA President and CEO Rossi Ralenkotter.
Last month, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the roll-out of an extensive entry-exit system at the 10 airports. Heller’s amendments would build on that provision — instructing Homeland Security to detail the program within 60 days and requiring the agency to come up with a plan to reduce wait times at those airports.
Even if McCarran does not make the top 10 by the time the entry-exit program begins, the immigration bill requires the effort to be expanded to all states after six years.
“Wait times for international visitors at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas are already significantly high, largely due to a lack of customs and border protection officers,” Heller said on the Senate floor Wednesday while presenting his amendments. “This amendment will help to alleviate these wait times, help to reduce the congestion that is discouraging travel and ultimately, hurting our economy.”