Security Enhancements Possible for U.S. Visa Waiver Program

Updated on
House Passes Syrian Refugee Restriction by 289-137 
  • Homeland Security chief opposes calls to freeze the program
  • He urges moves in addition to those taken in the past year

The U.S. shouldn’t put a temporary freeze on its visa waiver program as a way to increase border security against the threat of terrorism, although “enhancements” may be needed, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Sunday.

“No, I would not do that at all,” Johnson said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” when asked if the U.S. should temporarily eliminate the program, used by millions of visitors each year including tourists and business travelers.

Instead, the administration should consider whether “security enhancements” might be necessary on top of moves already taken in late 2014 and again in August, he said without providing more detail.

The U.S. House last week voted to temporarily block refugees from Syria and Iraq from entering the country, partly in response to the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. Some of the Paris attackers may have entered Europe as refugees.

Some lawmakers, though, say potential terrorists can find easier ways of entering the U.S. than as refugees, who are extensively vetted, including through the visa waiver program. The program allows citizens of 38 participating countries, including most of Europe, to travel to the U.S. without a visa for stays of 90 days or less. In 2014 more than 20 million travelers arrived through the program, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

‘Soft Underbelly’

Senators Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, are proposing measures to tighten the waiver program, which Feinstein has called the “soft underbelly” of national security. As part of the plan, anyone who has traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years would have to be interviewed in order to receive a U.S. visa.

“The visa waiver program is something that we’ve been focused on, frankly, since I’ve been secretary, because there are a number of foreign terrorist fighters who have gone into Iraq and Syria from countries in Europe and elsewhere,” Johnson said. “There are ways that Congress can help us.”

“The reality is that something like only 2,100 Syrian refugees have been resettled in this country through a very extensive vetting process that takes something like 18 to 24 months,” Johnson added.

Representative Michael McCaul said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the threat posed by some refugees shouldn’t be downplayed. “I take ISIS at its word when it says we want to exploit the refugee programs to infiltrate the West,” said McCaul, the Texas Republican who leads the House homeland security committee.

“That’s why, in Congress, we said, let’s put a brake on this until we have assurances and have confidence we can properly vet and do background checks.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE