House Passes Changes to Visa Waiver Program

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House Passes Changes to Visa Waiver Program

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On December 8, 2015, H.R. 158 – the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 (“the Act”) – passed the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate.  The Act will impose additional restrictions on the Visa Waiver Program, making it harder for visitors from Iraq, Syria, and other designated countries to travel to the United States using that program.  It also requires Visa Waiver Program countries to share counter-terrorism information with the United States and check travelers against INTERPOL and other databases.  The Act is a reaction to recent terrorist attacks, including those in Paris and San Bernardino.

Although protecting the United States from terrorism is essential, Congress should consider some modifications to the Act before it is passed.  As drafted, there are concerns that the Act will target descendants of Syrian or Iraqi nationals who have no connection to those countries other than by parentage (i.e., a child born to Iraqi parents and living in Belgium, with a Belgian passport, who has never been to Iraq).  The Act also excludes those who have travelled to countries alleged to be supporting terrorism in the past five years, but it does not provide waiver provisions for those who pose no threat, such as journalists or humanitarian workers.  It is also not clear that tightening the Visa Waiver Program will prevent extremists from entering the United States.  In fact, Saudi Arabia is not included on the list of designated countries, even though it produced fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers.

As the Senate considers the Act and before voting to pass it, it should require modifications addressing these concerns.

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