Two bills introduced to alter Visa Waiver Program

31 Mar 15

UNITED STATES

Two bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would alter the Visa Waiver Program. The program currently allows travelers from 38 countries, mostly in Europe, to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days without applying for a visa.

One bill would expand the program to more countries, while the other would place new restrictions on it, representing two divergent trends in this area. Many countries are attracting investment and tourist dollars by reducing barriers to travel. At the same time, there are rising calls to tighten security on visa-free entry.

The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act, introduced Jan. 6, would expand the grounds on which a traveler may be ineligible for a visa waiver or for removal of a country from the program. The bill would also require the Secretary of Homeland Security to submit annual reports on the security of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), including the number and nationalities of those denied eligibility for security reasons. ESTA is the electronic system that screens and authorizes eligible foreign nationals to travel to the U.S. without a visa. H.R. 158 is co-sponsored by Rep. Candice Miller, R- Mich., who chairs the House Homeland Security subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the full House Homeland Security Committee. Both representatives hold authority over immigration hearings, which could influence the success of the bill.

The Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act, introduced March 17, would allow the Secretary of Homeland Security to grant visa waiver status to any country that meets certain criteria, such as cooperation on security, low overstay rates and low visa denial rates. The bill, H.R. 1401, would also mandate that participating foreign nationals carry electronic passports containing their biometric data and loosen restrictions significantly for Canadian citizens 50 and older who maintain a residence in Canada and own or rent a home in the U.S. The bill also makes some tweaks to consular visa processing, including setting a goal of interviewing 90 percent of all nonimmigrant visa applicants worldwide within 10 days of application receipt and developing a pilot program for processing visas using secure remote videoconferencing technology. Thus far, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Joseph Heck, R- Nev., and Rep. Mike Quigley, D- Ill., has enjoyed some support from states that have a high level of tourism, but it has not yet been scheduled to be considered by committee.

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