In an uncommon and singular act of bipartisanship, the US House of Representatives, backed by Pres. Obama, voted 407-19 voted in favor of stricter requirements in the US Visa Waiver program for 38 countries. The aftermath of the tragic Paris attacks followed less than a month later by the San Bernardino mass shooting undoubtedly had a significant impact on the legislators’ decision to pass the bill.
The amendments, contained in H.R. 158 or Visa Waiver Improvement Act of 2015, was sponsored by Congresswoman Candice Miller (R-MI.) It is expected to become law before the year ends. However, it has to pass through Senate and approved by the President to become legislation. After that, any foreign national who, after March 2011, has travelled to Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan would need a visa to enter the US. Official government visits and military service are exempted.
Also a measure in the bill is the requirement of all travelers covered by the US VWP to have electronic passports with their biometric data by April 1 of next year. The existing law requires only an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA.) According to Kerry Yianilos, a visa attorney, “authorization to travel without a visa using the VWP can be acquired through the ESTA.” Participating countries, of which there are 38, will have to share information regarding suspected terrorists; refusal to do so will result in removal from inclusion in the visa waiver program.
The Visa Waiver program allows the entry of 20 million foreigners into the US, for a stay of 90 days. About 5,000 Islamic State members are Europeans who have travelled to the blacklisted nations. Many of them are citizens of countries in the US VWP, and without the newly-introduced measures, they can gain easy access to the United States.
Reactions to the Bill
Not everyone was happy with the overwhelming yes votes. David O’Sullivan, Ambassador of the European Union to the United States, voiced his concerns, saying the general perception of European diplomats is that the US has been unnecessarily hasty with the changes. He went on to state possible consequences – economies could be adversely affected, it could hamper travel of legitimate individuals and may influence a planned EU review of the program.
A few congressmen had qualms about the bill’s passage. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said it was discriminatory against the targeted individuals and would affect entire communities. He also questioned the limited exemptions and wanted a wider net to include journalists, researchers, health professionals and human rights investigators. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim, shared his fellow Democrat’s views and added that “focus should be on terrorism, not just country or origin.”
Jenny Seon, project director at Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles calls the tightening of the visa waiver program an “unreasonable knee-jerk reaction that only punishes immigrant families.” South Korea has one of the highest numbers of visitors to the US yearly. The new measures will burden families wanting to travel for weddings and birthdays because of the long process.
Civil liberties organizations and minority rights groups are up in arms against the stricter requirements for VWP-member countries, citing discrimination of ethnic groups and an overbroad categorization of people. The American Civil Liberties Union cites very distant connections to the banned countries as a reason for some individuals to be denied entry.
These groups are lobbying for a better version from the Senate when the bill reaches them. But the US Travel Association is backing the House version. Earlier, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had proposed face-to-face interviews at consulates and passports to have fingerprint scanning and facial recognition for nationals of VWP countries who will travel to the US. This didn’t sit well with the travel industry, as it could hinder the economic benefits that travelers bring in.
The Senate has not released a schedule for hearing of H.R. 158 but it is a must-pass measure in the trillion dollar spending bill needed to keep the government open.