U.S. Moves to Tighten Visa Program in Wake of Paris Attacks

U.S. Visa Waiver Program Scrutinized on Terror Fear
  • New screening rules to capture past travel to terror havens
  • Congress considering proposals to restrict entry to U.S.

The Obama administration, responding to the terrorist attacks in Paris and the threat of foreign fighters entering the country, is tightening rules and adding new screening requirements to a program that lets citizens from 38 countries travel to the U.S. without a visa.

The White House also is promising to work with lawmakers who are already proposing changes to the program, which now permits visa-free travel for about 20 million people arriving in the U.S.

The Homeland Security Department is modifying travel authorization applications to capture data from travelers who in the past have been in any country deemed a terrorist haven. DHS and the State Department are also being directed to prepare a report on any of the 38 countries now part of the visa waiver program that haven’t fully put in place screening and information requirements for travelers.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Monday the changes are designed to counter the risk that radicalized Europeans who’ve traveled to extremist hot spots such as Syria could return home and then make their way to U.S. soil.

Tighter Security

“We want to ensure that we have tighter scrutiny in place, better information sharing,” Rhodes said at a briefing in Paris, where President Barack Obama is attending a United Nations summit on climate change.

Several of the perpetrators of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris were citizens of France or Belgium, two of the countries that are part of the visa waiver program. Most of the participating countries are in Europe, and the program allows travelers from those nations visa-free entry to the U.S. for stays of 90 days or less.

The Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, have prompted moves in Congress to tighten entry requirements to the U.S. and limit the acceptance of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

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.

House Legislation

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said Monday that a U.S. House task force that has been looking at legislative responses to the Paris attacks will convene again on Tuesday and the visa program will be on the agenda.

He said the aim is to look at five potential changes to the visa waiver program and act “before the end of the year.”

Those possible changes, he said, include requiring participating countries to issue electronic passports containing biometric information; requiring them to screen passengers against lost or stolen passports and share that data; and making U.S. assessments of high-risk countries on an annual basis rather than every two years.

McCarthy said that unless extra security is put in place, “I think the country will be less safe.”

Refugee Resettlement

Members of Congress also are looking at the U.S. refugee resettlement program in the wake of the Paris attacks. Obama has been planning to increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the U.S. to 10,000 in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The House last week voted to temporarily block refugees from Syria and Iraq from entering the country. Obama has threatened to veto any such legislation that arrives at his desk.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that to address concerns that have been expressed by lawmakers and state officials, the administration will provide governors with more frequent updates about refugees settled in their states and increase sharing of information “on our extensive security precautions.”

“When it comes to refugees, this is the group of individuals who is the most rigorously screened class of travelers in the United States,” Earnest said.

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