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Changes in the visa waiver program are on the way as both the U.S. House and Senate have moved to fast-track a bill making it impossible for Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian citizens to enter the country with a visa waiver.
The Visa Waiver Improvement Act of 2015 will likely be passed this week after drawing bipartisan support from Congress and passing through the House last night.
So who will be affected by the changes?
Anyone with a passport or citizenship from Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan would become ineligible for the visa waiver program regardless of whether they hold a passport from another visa waiver country. Those with parents from the four affected countries, as well, would become ineligible.
Someone with a UK passport who has Syrian parentage, for instance, would have to receive a traditional visa to enter the U.S. Even if this person had never been to Syria, they’d still be ineligible to enter the U.S. with a visa waiver.
Another wrinkle involves overall travel to Iraq and Syria; anyone from a visa waiver country who has even visited Iraq or Syria since March 2011 would become ineligible for the visa waiver program.
Travelers would have to self-report, however, if they’ve traveled to certain countries or hold dual citizenship.
“It’s a well-intentioned proposal. It will be up to each passenger to self-report their dual nationalities and their past travels,” said Patricia Rojas-Ungar, vice president of government relations at the U.S. Travel Association. “A new question would have to be added [when booking a ticket] asking if they’ve traveled to Syria in the past five years, for instance, and if they answer ‘yes’ they’d be directed to the nearest U.S. consulate.”
For U.S. Travel, the bill as it stands today represents a positive step towards creating a more secure travel environment.
“A couple weeks ago, people were saying shut the whole program down,” said Rojas-Ungar. “House members were trying to come up with a way to address concerns, but not go so far in addressing concerns that you ended up dismantling a very successful program. Ultimately we’re trying to screen out the bad actors, and this might be a good way to do it. We may find in a few months that it didn’t work.”
She also hopes that the language in the bill will exclude certain types of travelers, like those who work for humanitarian causes, from increased scrutiny.
The bill does not currently include any amendment that would make passports featuring biometric identity information mandatory for visa waiver countries. U.S. Travel says that such regulations would deter 14 million first-time visitors over the next five years and cost the U.S. $54.4 billion in direct spending over that time.
Despite concerns, the bill is receiving support across the board from the travel industry. The business travel community is also on the same page.
“[The visa waiver program’s] multi-layered approach has prevented terrorists, serious criminals and other bad actors from traveling to the United States,” wrote Global Business Travel Association chief operating officer Mike McCormick in a blog post. “This includes 165,000 individuals carrying passports reported as lost or stolen and 6,000 individuals who did not receive electronic travel authorization. Last year, 20 million visitors traveled to the U.S. under the visa waiver program, injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the U.S. economy. Without the program, travel to the U.S. would dry up and there would be serious economic impact.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, however, said the new legislation is deeply flawed and will discriminate unfairly against international travelers.
“While the ACLU recognizes the importance of a Congressional response to the increase in recent terrorist attacks, we urge Congress to exercise caution and to avoid passing legislation that would broadly scapegoat groups based on nationality, and would fan the flames of discriminatory exclusion, both here and abroad,” writes the ACLU in a letter to Congresspeople.
It concludes: “We have grave reservations about this proposal.”