Visa-waiver changes part of US spending Bill

WASHINGTON • The US Congress has struck a huge spending deal, including a measure that will tighten the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) by excluding certain travellers deemed to be a risk.

Republican and Democratic negotiators included the measure in a catch-all spending package agreed to late on Tuesday and unveiled in the dead of night that sets federal expenditure at US$1.149 billion (S$1.62 billion) to Sept 30, 2016, the end of the fiscal year.

The text, which is expected to be voted on by today, includes the legislation adopted by the House of Representatives last week which excludes citizens from VWP countries who are also dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.

It would also exclude anyone from 38 participating nations - including 30 in Europe - who has travelled to those four countries, or to a country Washington has listed as supporting terrorism, since March 2011.

Such foreign nationals will not be barred from travelling to the United States but they will need to obtain a visa prior to their visit through standard means, which includes a face-to-face interview at a US consulate.

About 20 million people - including about 13 million Europeans - enter the US each year without a visa for stays of less than 90 days.

European diplomats, led by European Union Ambassador to Washington David O'Sullivan, have warned of potential retaliation against the US, arguing that the Visa Waiver Programme is based on reciprocity.

Non-profit groups have called the measure discriminatory because it punishes certain European citizens based on their national origin in Muslim-majority countries. "Once again, members of Congress are using the government funding Bill to pursue their extremist agendas," said Mr Anthony Romero, executive director of civil liberties group ACLU.

"Sneaking damaging and discriminatory riders into a must-pass Bill usurps the democratic process and is irresponsible."

Some US lawmakers had sought to kill or amend the measure, expressing concerns that European nations would demand reciprocal treatment for US travellers.

But supporters of the measure in Congress argued that it is vital to tighten the programme in the wake of deadly terror strikes in Paris, where some of the attackers were French and Belgian nationals who likely could have boarded a plane to the US without a visa.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'Visa-waiver changes part of US spending Bill'. Print Edition | Subscribe