Lawmakers were introducing legislation this week tightening the program that allows millions to travel to the United States without a visa, as Congress moves to enhance security following the deadly Paris attacks.
“Now we’re looking at the Visa Waiver Program, those gaps and vulnerabilities in that,” number two House Republican Kevin McCarthy told CNN Wednesday.
“You’ll see it roll out tomorrow” in the House of Representatives, he added on Fox, adding that it would be introduced on the floor of the chamber next week.
The visa waiver program is available to citizens of 38 countries, largely US allies and relatively stable developed democracies. Many are in Europe.
Twenty million visitors annually use the program, which allows them to stay in country for 90 days and provides a boon to the US economy.
McCarthy said a key component would be restricting travelers who had been to Iraq or Syria, where Islamic State extremists have drawn thousands of foreign fighters.
“Anyone who’s traveled to Iraq or Syria in the last five years should not be able to just do the online (application) and come to America,” he said.
Senators introduced bipartisan legislation Tuesday aimed at preventing terrorists from abusing the program.
Tourism sector worried
The tourism sector is worried that imposing new procedures will discourage travel.
The visa-free privilege enjoyed by most European countries including France means they fill out a detailed form online and pay a small fee, rather than apply at US consulates.
Their biographical details are cross-referenced with various security databases before they board a US-bound flight.
Weeks after the Paris attacks, the White House announced its own enhancements Monday, including capturing data on a visitor’s travel to any country “constituting a terrorist safe haven,” and calling for greater intelligence sharing with participating countries.
Senators including Democrat Dianne Feinstein want to go further, adding into their legislation a requirement that visitors also submit fingerprints and photographs prior to travel.
Today, fingerprints and photos of visa-free travelers are taken upon US arrival.
Imposing the new regulations could sabotage spontaneous US tourism, warned Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of the US Travel Association, who said the additional biometric requirements might be a “poison pill” in the legislation.
“Regardless of the design or attention, the effect of this new regime would be incredibly complex, costly and undermining, not to mention redundant,” Grella told AFP.
“I’m not even sure that members (of Congress) understand… what the cost would be to travelers, what effect on travel behavior as well as diplomatic relations.”
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said he hoped Congress addresses three reforms: a requirement for e-passports with biometric chips; screening travelers against a new INTERPOL database of lost and stolen passports; and annual assessments of high-risk countries.
Most visa-waiver countries already use e-passports, including all European Union nations since 2009.
The program was beefed up after 9/11, and its supporters argue the security enhancements are substantial.
“People still seem to think that you can simply waive your British or French passport and get on a plane, and arrive at JFK or Dulles” airports, Marc Frey, who directed the program from 2007 to 2010, told AFP.
“That’s just not the case anymore.”
The citizens of most EU countries currently travel to the US without a visa. But the US still makes exceptions with a range of EU countries, and still imposes visas on travellers from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Croatia. A regulation which entered into force in December 2013 requires EU countries to "react in common" on visa matters, especially in cases where foreign countries "subjects [EU] citizens to differing treatment”.