US House changes to visa waiver programme could include 'smart' passports

A Transportation Security Administration officer checks travel documents at the Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.
A Transportation Security Administration officer checks travel documents at the Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US House of Representatives could vote as soon as next week on a measure that would tighten US border controls after last month's Paris attacks by toughening entry requirements for travellers from countries that currently have visa requirements waived, a Republican leader said on Wednesday.

"Now we're looking at the visa waiver program - those gaps and vulnerabilities in that," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on CNN. "You're going to see a bill roll out later this week and pass next week as well."

McCarthy then told Fox Business Network the bill would be unveiled on Thursday and that he expected it would pass with strong bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled House.

If it does not pass as a standalone bill, some lawmakers and congressional aides also have said a visa measure could be rolled into a sweeping spending bill that must pass by Dec 11 to keep the government from shutting down.

U.S. officials have been looking at ways to tighten border security since the Nov 13 attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people. The militant group Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and threatened to send more fighters to the West.

The Obama administration announced changes this week to the visa waiver program, which allows travellers from 38 countries to enter the United States without obtaining visas before they travel. Each year about 20 million visitors use the program, which allows them to stay 90 days.

Under the changes, security officials can more closely screen such travellers, including collecting more information from people who have made past visits to countries such as Syria and Iraq.

Lawmakers would like the restrictions to go further than those announced by the administration.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement lawmakers will consider several changes, including requiring countries in the visa waiver program "to issue smart e-passports with biometric chips" and screening travellers with databases of lost and stolen passports and criminals.

Legislation introduced in the US Senate this week would have travellers from visa waiver countries provide fingerprints and photos and require individuals who had visited Syria or Iraq in the last five years to obtain a visa.

Another security measure, to toughen screening of refugees from Iraq and Syria, passed the House last month. Although President Barack Obama has threatened a veto, Republican leaders in Congress may also include it in the must-pass spending measure.