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Visa WaiverU.S. modifies Visa-Waiver program to make it more secure

Published 1 December 2015

The United States announced Monday that it would make changes to the Visa Waiver program in an effort to prevent terrorists who are citizens of Visa Waiver countries from easily entering the United States. The New York Times reports that the White House has admitted that the changes — which would impose higher fines for airlines which fail to verify passengers’ identities and increased information-sharing among countries — are limited, and that more sweeping changes would require Congressional action. Law enforcement and security experts say that the Visa Waiver program — which allows more than twenty million foreigners form the thirty-eight Visa Waiver countries to travel to the United States each year without being interviewed at American consulates and embassies — dwarfs the administration’s Syrian refugee plan, and poses a far greater threat to national security.

The United States announced Monday that it would make changes to the Visa Waiver program in an effort to prevent terrorists who are citizens of Visa Waiver countries from easily entering the United States.

The New York Times reports that the White House has admitted that the changes — which would impose higher fines for airlines which fail to verify passengers’ identities and increased information-sharing among countries — are limited, and that more sweeping changes would require Congressional action.

Republicans lawmakers have already said they would seek deeper changes in the program.

Two weeks ago, Senator Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said that terrorists who are citizens of Visa Waiver countries – and who, therefore, can travel from Europe to the United States without a visa — pose a more serious threat to U.S. security than refugees from Syria (“Visa Waiver program more serious threat than refugees: Senate Intel. Comm. chair,” HSNW, 18 November 2015).

Law enforcement and security experts agree with Burr that the Visa Waiver program poses a far greater threat to national security than the Obama administration’s plan – harshly criticized by Republican governors and presidential candidates — to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the United States.

Security experts also note that the sheer size of the Visa Waiver program – which allows more than twenty million foreigners form the thirty-eight Visa Waiver countries to travel to the United States each year without being interviewed at American consulates and embassies – dwarfs the administration’s Syrian refugee plan.

The Times notes that the security screening of refugees requires several in-person interviews, an extensive background check, and may take up to two years – but the Visa Waivers program relies exclusively on digital databases quickly to clear travelers for U.S.-bound flights.

A 2012 government audit found that about 2 percent of Visa Waiver travelers — or about 364,000 people in 2010 — had entered the United States without the required verification.

Business leaders view the Visa Waiver program as making a major contribution to the U.S. economy, with travelers coming to the United States from Visa Waiver countries spend about $100 billion a year.

Among the new Visa Waiver measures:

  • Airlines will now be required to ask U.S.-bound travelers whether they have traveled to conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq.
  • The United States will offer more assistance to other countries to facilitate the sharing of information about passengers.
  • DHS will deploy teams of agents specializing in tracking foreign fighters at airports in other countries.
  • DHS will ask Congress for the authority to increase fines against airlines from the current $5,000 to $50,000 for failing to verify a traveler’s passport.
  • The FBI and DHS will study the Visa Waiver program and report to the president in two months.

The House majority leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-California), said Monday that GOP lawmakers would advance their own modifications to the program. The Times notes that these proposed changes will include requiring all Visa Waiver countries to issue chip-equipped e-passports; that they report all lost and stolen passports to Interpol; and that passenger lists be screened against the Interpol database of missing passports.