House passes bill restricting Visa Waiver Program

8 Dec 15

UNITED STATES

The U.S. House of Representatives today passed a bill that would place new restrictions on the Visa Waiver Program by barring individuals who have traveled to Iraq, Syria, or other hot spots since 2011 from traveling to the U.S. without a visa, and heightening program requirements for participating countries. The bill passed with a vote of 407 to 19.

A Senate bill was also introduced last week, and the White House has indicated support for tightening the Visa Waiver Program in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris last month allegedly perpetrated by Belgian and French nationals.

The Visa Waiver Program currently allows nationals of 38 countries, mostly from Europe, to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without having to apply for a visa or appear at a U.S. consulate for an interview. The European Union’s ambassador to the U.S., David O’Sullivan, has indicated that restrictions on visa-free travel could “harm our economies and burden innocent people.” The EU is set to review its visa-waiver policies and O’Sullivan suggested that the actions of the U.S. could affect the outcome.

The House bill, H.R. 158 (“Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015”), would bar travelers from using the program if they have been to Iraq, Syria or “any other country or area of concern,” at any time since March 1, 2011 (when the Syrian conflict began), regardless of the traveler’s nationality. The bill would also require that all Visa Waiver Program travelers to the U.S. hold machine-readable passports and, by April 1, 2016, electronic passports containing biometric data.

The bill would also toughen criteria for countries participating in the program, and would authorize termination from the program for countries that do not comply. In addition to issuing machine-readable, e-passports by April 1, 2016, and putting in place mechanisms to validate such passports by Oct. 1, 2016, participating countries would also be required to report lost or stolen passports within 24 hours, screen all non-citizens through Interpol databases, and implement an agreement to exchange passenger information with U.S. agencies. The bill would also impose new reporting requirements by the Secretary of Homeland Security, including an annual review of participating countries.

BAL Analysis: The easy passage of the bill in the House and recent flurry of activity from Congress and the White House on this issue indicates momentum to make changes to the program. The bill’s provisions may be included in a larger budget bill that is currently being negotiated in Congress. Travelers using the Visa Waiver Program should anticipate additional screening measures and possible new restrictions on the program if legislation passes.

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