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House votes to strengthen security of the Visa Waiver Program

Washington, December 9, 2015 | Nicole Bender (202-225-3706)
U.S. Congressman Mac Thornberry (R-Clarendon) voted yesterday in support of a bill that would deny visa waivers to those who have traveled to or are nationals of countries with significant terrorist activity and enhance the screening of all travelers from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries. The “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015,” H.R. 158, passed the House by a vote of 407-19.

“Many terrorist recruits and sympathizers who traveled to join ISIS have passports from countries that receive visa waivers and do not currently need a visa to enter the United States,” said Thornberry. “This bill would stop terrorists from exploiting this weakness in our border controls by requiring those traveling from countries deemed high-risk, even for business or tourism, to go through more stringent screenings and be approved for a visa. This bill would also improve intelligence sharing, which is key to stopping attacks.”

H.R. 158 would require dual nationals and individuals who have traveled to certain nations or state sponsors of terror - including Syria, Iran, and Iraq - since March 1, 2011, to obtain a visa before traveling to the U.S. rather than entering through the VWP. The Secretary of Homeland Security would be able to designate additional countries of concern should threats arise and suspend a country from VWP if information-sharing requirements are not sufficiently met. 

The bill would also amend the “Immigration and Nationality Act” to include terrorism risk as a factor under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization that the Secretary of Homeland Security shall consider when determining whether a foreign national is eligible to travel to the U.S.

Many VWP countries fail to screen travelers through INTERPOL, which maintains global databases of lost or stolen passports and information about travelers wanted by law enforcement agencies based on ties to terrorism and criminal activity. This bill would require VWP countries to check travelers against INTERPOL to determine if a traveler is wanted or if a fraudulent passport is being used. VWP countries would be required to issue their citizens fraud-resistant electronic passports containing biometric information, confirm such documents are legitimate when they are scanned upon travel, and notify INTERPOL within 24 hours of their citizens’ passport being reported missing. 

The VWP, created in 1986, currently allows citizens from all 38 participating countries who have a valid passport and pass security screenings to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days for business or tourism without obtaining a visa. VWP countries must participate in security reviews every other year, offer reciprocal visa-free travel to U.S. citizens, and share counterterrorism and law enforcement information with the U.S.