US Congress set to rein in visa-free travel

Travellers wait in line at the Central Terminal at LaGuardia Airport in the Queens borough of New York on Dec 28, 2010.
Travellers wait in line at the Central Terminal at LaGuardia Airport in the Queens borough of New York on Dec 28, 2010. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Congress struck a sprawling spending deal overnight that included a measure tightening the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) by excluding certain travellers deemed by Washington to be a risk.

Republican and Democratic negotiators included the measure in a catch-all spending package agreed to late Tuesday (Dec 15) and unveiled in the dead of night that sets federal expenditures at US$1.15 trillion (S$1.62 trillion) until Sept 30, 2016, the end of the fiscal year.

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

It would also exclude anyone from the 38 participating nations, mainly in Europe and largely US allies and stable democracies, who has travelled to those four countries, or to a country Washington has listed as supporting terrorism, since March 2011.

The effort reflects calls by US lawmakers and the authorities to reduce security vulnerabilities in the aftermath of the deadly terror strikes last month in Paris, where some of the attackers were French and Belgian nationals who could have travelled unrestricted to the United States to carry out attacks.

The affected foreign nationals will not be barred from travelling to the United States, but they will be required 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 each year come to the United States without a visa for stays of less than 90 days, including about 13 million Europeans.

They apply online, presenting biographical data through the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, or ESTA, and pay a small fee.

European diplomats, led by European Union Ambassador to Washington David O'Sullivan, have warned of potential retaliation against the United States, arguing the programme is based on reciprocity.

On Wednesday (Dec 16), Mr O'Sullivan described the Bill as "excessively rigid" and regretted that the changes would "cause some complications for many good faith travellers". Officials in Europe - where five of the 28 EU nations have yet to join the Visa Waiver Programme - have planned a review of VWP next year, and the US action could complicate that process.

"It is clear that to the extent that this new legislation creates new discriminatory treatment, then that will be part of that review process in April," Mr O'Sullivan told AFP in an interview.

Non-profit groups have also called the measure discriminatory since it punishes certain European citizens based on their national origin from 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.

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