Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and a bipartisan group of senators today introduced legislation to strengthen the security of the Visa Waiver Program to help prevent terrorists from entering the United States.
The bill is cosponsored by Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Angus King (I-Maine), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
The Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act would improve the security of the Visa Waiver Program by doing the following:
- Require individuals who have traveled to Syria or Iraq in the past five years to acquire a traditional tourist visa instead of traveling without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program. This process requires an in-person interview with an American consular official and the submission of the traveler’s biometric information.
- Require travelers using the Visa Waiver Program to submit biometric information, in the form of fingerprints and a photograph, before they travel to the United States.
- Require all visa waiver travelers to use an electronic passport, which are more secure and harder to tamper with.
- Require increased intelligence-sharing between Visa Waiver Program countries and the United States.
- Security enhancements in the bill would be paid for by increasing the Visa Waiver traveler fee, which is currently $14. Only $4 supports Visa Waiver Program security. In comparison, the fee for a traditional tourist visa is $160.
“The Paris terror attacks were committed by French and Belgian nationals, which means it would have been possible for them to board a plane to this country using the Visa Waiver Program. As growing numbers of foreign nationals travel to the Middle East to train and fight, and with 45 million lost and stolen passports on the black market, we must do all we can to secure the program,” Senator Feinstein said. “Strengthening the program will require collecting additional information from travelers before they arrive and require participating countries to share valuable information and intelligence with us. Gaps in the security of the Visa Waiver Program must be addressed as soon as possible.”
“In the wake the Paris terrorist attacks, it’s important that Congress work together in a meaningful way to ensure that those who would do us harm on our own soil are unable to do so,” Senator Flake said. “Passing this bipartisan bill to strengthen the highly-beneficial Visa Waiver Program so that it cannot be exploited by individuals who may have ties to terrorism in Iraq and Syria will be an effective start.”
Addressing security gaps
The bill would strengthen the Visa Waiver Program in the following ways:
1. Preventing foreign fighters from using the Visa Waiver Program: An estimated 5,000 European citizens have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight. More than 1,500 of them are from France. If they return to their home countries, these individuals may be able travel to the United States without a visa.
- Legislative solution: Require individuals who have traveled to Syria and Iraq in the past five years to go through the traditional visa process, which includes an in-person interview, to come to the United States.
2. Requiring additional biometric information: In cases where the foreign national has never been to the United States before, U.S. law enforcement cannot run biometric information from that visa waiver program traveler against key databases in advance of the person’s first arrival in the United States.
- Legislative solution: Require biometric data to be provided by a foreign national prior to travel to the United States using the Visa Waiver Program.
3. Requiring electronic passports for participation in the Visa Waiver Program: Although electronic passports with built-in chips carrying biometric data are now required to be issued by Visa Waiver Program countries, some existing designated countries are effectively allowed to phase-in this requirement over several years because older passports can remain valid.
- Legislative solution: Require all Visa Waiver Program travelers have electronic passports within 90 days of enactment. Only individuals with machine-readable passports may travel using the Visa Waiver Program.
4. Requiring additional information sharing between countries: Information-sharing with the United States is a means of protecting national security while allowing individuals to travel without a visa. Information-sharing must be improved to ensure threats are detected.
- Legislative solution: Improve information sharing by participating countries in the following ways:
- Require participation in the Visa Waiver Program be contingent on countries’ full implementation of information-sharing agreements, including agreements on foreign terrorists and those who have committed crimes.
- Increase contribution to, and screening against, INTERPOL’s lost and stolen documents database.
- Require DHS to consider a country’s ability to collect, analyze and share passenger data concerning dangerous individuals.
- Improve biometric information sharing about, and screening of, refugees and asylum seekers.
- Require DHS to consider a country’s ability to share information about foreign fighters with multiple countries and multilateral organizations, like INTERPOL.
5. Increasing security in the air: All Visa Waiver Program countries should have signed federal air marshal agreements, which provide legal protection to air marshals in situations where they need to take action.
- Legislative solution: Require completion of a federal air marshal agreement.