US plans to tighten visa-waiver programme

New security steps aim to prevent terrorist attacks similar to those by ISIS in Paris

US Senator Dianne Feinstein holding her passport during a news conference on Nov 19. She is one of the Senate Democrats proposing a tightening of the visa-waiver programme.
US Senator Dianne Feinstein holding her passport during a news conference on Nov 19. She is one of the Senate Democrats proposing a tightening of the visa-waiver programme.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS • The US government has announced changes to the visa-waiver programme to try and stop people who have visited conflict zones from easily boarding US-bound commercial flights, a move meant to prevent an attack in the country similar to the ones that hit Paris.

But the measures - which include potentially higher fines for airlines that fail to verify their passengers' identities and increased information sharing between countries - are limited, and White House officials acknowledge that they would need Congress to pass legislation to further tighten controls.

Congressional Republican leaders announced on Monday they would pursue more potent legislation to toughen the waiver programme.

"We see a greater threat of foreign fighters coming into Europe," said White House deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes.

A spokesman from the US Embassy in Singapore yesterday said Washington is strengthening the visa- waiver programme and bolstering relations with programme partners including Singapore.

The scheme - a special travel arrangement to ease the flow of European tourists and visitors from friendly countries - poses a far greater threat to US security than the Obama administration's highly criticised plan to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the country, according to law enforcement experts and officials.

The extremists who mounted the attacks in Paris on Nov 13 were not Syrians, but citizens of Europe who might have been able to fly to the US without getting a visa or going through any of the significant security screening that refugees face.

The visa-waiver programme also dwarfs the refugee plan, allowing 20 million foreigners a year to travel to the United States without being interviewed at US consulates and embassies. It covers 38 countries, mainly European, but also allies such as Japan, Australia, Chile and New Zealand.

Unlike the screening of refugees, which involves in-person interviews and extensive background checks that can take more than a year, the visa waivers rely on computerised programmes to quickly clear visitors on US-bound flights. According to a 2012 government audit, about 2 per cent of travellers - or about 364,000 people in 2010 - entered the US without the required verification.

After the Paris attacks, US lawmakers and Republican presidential hopefuls have focused on the programme to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees, saying it could easily be exploited by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists. At least one of the militants who died in the attacks may have posed as a refugee to get into Europe from Syria.

Vulnerabilities in the waiver programme have been a long-standing concern at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, its director James Comey said after the Paris attacks.

He said the bureau was particularly concerned about Europeans who go to Syria to fight with ISIS, then return to Europe and are just "a visa- waiver trip away" from getting into the US. "That remains, obviously, a focus of our work," he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'US plans to tighten visa-waiver programme'. Print Edition | Subscribe