Nov 17 2008

Senator Feinstein Opposes Bush Administration’s Expansion of Visa Waiver Program Despite Security Risks

–Senator to introduce legislation to tighten security, require greater oversight of visa waiver program–

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security, today expressed her disappointment that the Department of Homeland Security has added seven new countries to the visa waiver program without implementing necessary security measures as required by law.  

Senator Feinstein also announced today that she intends to introduce legislation in the next Congress to tighten the visa waiver program by increasing oversight, requiring DHS to accurately track travelers entering the United States on the program, and limiting program expansion to countries with low overstay rates.  

“I continue to believe that the visa waiver program is our Achilles’ heel. By not requiring visas and background checks, it enables terrorists to easily come to this country and do our citizens harm. By not accurately tracking those who enter and exit this country, this program allows foreign visitors to exploit our immigration laws.” Senator Feinstein said.  

“Unless the Administration addresses these security risks, additional countries should not be accepted into the visa waiver program. 

“I intend to introduce legislation to tighten the visa waiver program that would require audits, ensure that U.S. and international law enforcement share data on stolen passports and limit the overstay rates of countries considered eligible for the program.” 

Today, DHS announced the addition of seven new countries to the visa waiver program: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, the Republic of Korea, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia.  

Under current law, only countries with visa refusal rates of less than 3 percent are eligible to participate in the visa waiver program.  In order to expand the program to countries with higher visa refusal rates, the Department of Homeland Security must first:

  • Develop a fully operational electronic travel authorization system that collects and verifies the biographical information of all visa waiver travelers before they board a plane to the United States;
  • Certify that there is an air exit system in place to verify the departure of 97 percent of foreign nationals who leave through the airports of the United States.  

Last week, DHS certified that it fulfilled these security requirements. 

However, although DHS requires passengers to comply with the electronic travel system by January 12, 2009, the agency won’t be able to verify that the travelers have registered with the program by the deadline. 

In addition, DHS has only tracked 97 percent of individuals who exit through U.S. airports, not whether 97 percent of individuals who entered at U.S. airports actually left the country. 

Senator Feinstein intends to introduce legislation in the next Congress that would tighten the security of the visa waiver program and require greater oversight of the immigration program. The bill would: 

  • Set maximum visa overstay rates for countries in the program;
  • Require DHS to verify entry data with exit data to track visa waiver travelers;
  • Require DHS to submit an annual report to Congress containing visa overstay rates for each visa waiver country;
  • Require oversight of the Electronic Travel Authorization System and verification of the data it collects;
  • Require current visa waiver countries to share information with the United States and Interpol about lost and stolen blank and issued passports before new countries can be added to the program. 

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