4 Things To Know About Visa Waivers And Security

Nov 20, 2015
Originally published on November 20, 2015 2:51 pm

While Congress took steps to pause the Syrian refugee program this week, there is another concern that many say poses a bigger threat of allowing a potential terrorist into the U.S. It's known as the visa waiver program, and it allowed 20 million travelers into the U.S. last year, with much less screening than refugees receive. President Obama said recently that "the idea that somehow [refugees] pose a more significant threat than all the tourists that pour into the United States every single day just doesn't jibe with reality."

Here are four things to know about that program, and the security concerns that have been raised about it:

1. How does it work?

It used to be that if you were a person living abroad and you wanted to see the U.S., you had to first go to an American Embassy and get a visa. You would be interviewed by an embassy official who would ask about your background. Since the 1980s, residents of many countries no longer have to go through that process. In fact, 38 nations, including most of Europe, are visa waiver countries. It's a largely hassle-free way to come to the U.S. for tourists and businesspeople. You'll need to answer a few questions on a form on the Internet and have a passport with a digital photograph.

2. What are the concerns?

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., say the process has gaps. She calls it "the soft underbelly" of America's national security. She and other lawmakers are worried about the thousands of Europeans who have gone to Syria to fight alongside ISIS.

They return to France or Belgium, say, and with no screening could then easily hop on a flight to the U.S.

3. How can those gaps be closed?

Feinstein is proposing legislation to tighten the visa waiver program and attempt to keep those foreign fighters out. The bill would require people who have traveled to Syria or Iraq in the past five years to go through an interview in order to get a U.S. visa. Of course, given the porous Syrian border, it's not easy to say for sure who has traveled there.

The Department of Homeland Security did tighten the program earlier this year, including requiring foreign travelers from waiver countries to carry passports with biometric data embedded on computer chips.

4. Would changing the visa waiver program make it more difficult for legitimate visitors coming to the U.S.?

That's what concerns many, including the travel and tourism industry and some business groups. All those foreign visitors to the U.S. spend on average $4,700 per person per trip, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Roger Dow, the group's president and CEO, supports closing loopholes, but warns against making any major changes.

The Obama administration says it's open to amending the program.

It's a delicate balance, said Frank Cilluffo, who runs the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. "We want to be open to foreign travelers, we want to be open to foreign cultures, we want to be open for business. But the flip side is we've got an acute security threat right now."

Feinstein says she intends to introduce her legislation after Thanksgiving.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And here's the progression of the security debate in the U.S. First, many politicians demanded the U.S. stop accepting Syrian refugees. President Obama and others responded that that makes no sense. It's hard to be accepted as a refugee. It's more likely an attacker would travel here as a tourist, often even not needing a visa. Now lawmakers are responding to that. They're questioning the visa waiver program that let 20 million people travel freely into the U.S. last year alone. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It used to be if you were a person living abroad and you wanted to see the USA, you had to first go to an American embassy and get a visa. You'd be interviewed by an embassy official who would ask about your background. But since the 1980s, residents of many countries no longer have to go through that process. In fact, 38 nations, including most of Europe, are visa waiver countries. It's a largely hassle-free way to come to the U.S. for tourists and business people - maybe too easy, says Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: This program is important to the business community and the tourism industry. And I have supported it. But I also believe it is the soft underbelly of our national security policies.

NAYLOR: Feinstein and other lawmakers are worried about the thousands of Europeans who have gone to Syria to fight alongside ISIS. They return to France or Belgium, say, and could then hop on a flight to the U.S. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee says the visa waiver program has too many gaps.

BOB CORKER: A massive, large numbers of foreign fighters in those countries and obviously there are questions as to whether those people could easily travel to the United States or not.

NAYLOR: Feinstein is proposing legislation to tighten the visa waiver program in attempt to keep those foreign fighters out. The bill would require people who've traveled to Syria or Iraq in the past five years to go through an interview in order to get a U.S. visa. Of course, given the porous Syrian border, it's not easy to say for sure who has traveled there. The Department of Homeland Security did tighten the program earlier this year including requiring foreign travelers from waiver countries to carry passports with biometric data embedded on computer chips. Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, says his group supports closing loopholes, but he warns against making any major changes.

ROGER DOW: Twenty million people come to the United States to do business, to go to school here, to visit and that would put severe restrictions on those people coming. These are legitimate travelers, so we need to continually look at these programs. It's the best security system we have, and we should continue it. And to push it aside, I think, is foolish and weakening security.

NAYLOR: The Obama administration says it's open to making further changes to the program. Frank Cilluffo, who runs the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, says it's a delicate balance.

FRANK CILLUFFO: We want to be open to foreign travelers, we want to be open to foreign cultures, we want to be open for business. But the flipside is is we've got an acute security threat right now, and it probably begs some questions to recalibrate, at least in the short-term, or to further button up, maybe, the visa waiver program as we know it.

NAYLOR: Feinstein says she intends to introduce her legislation after Thanksgiving. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.