After more than a month of debate about the security
of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), Congress this month passed legislation that
adds new requirements to the program as part of the omnibus spending package.
The VWP, which allows citizens of 38 countries to
enter the U.S. without a visa for visits of up to 90 days, came under scrutiny
after the Paris terrorist attacks in November because most of the assailants
were citizens of France or Belgium, both VWP countries.
Changes that were passed in the spending bill include
preventing anyone who has traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years from
using the VWP to enter the U.S.; it also requires screening of all travelers
against Interpol databases, the use of electronic passports with biometric
information (fingerprints and photographs) and more frequent threat assessments
of VWP countries.
The U.S. Travel Association approved of the changes.
The group has campaigned extensively in support of the VWP, which it says
accounts for $190 billion in annual economic output.
“This ensures both sides of the partnerships are
holding up their end of the bargain,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice
president of public affairs for U.S. Travel. “Meaning that our allies would
have to raise their standards of technology and information sharing as we did
the same. So it really stays true to the purpose of the program.”
However, U.S. Travel is adamantly opposed to elements
of a bill introduced in late November by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and
Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), specifically that all VWP visitors would be required to
submit biometric information before arriving in the U.S.; it also calls for an
increase in the VWP application fee, which is currently $14.
Sticking VWP travelers with the bill, and possibly
sending them to a U.S. embassy in advance of their trip, is not within the
spirit of the program, U.S. Travel argued.
“Feinstein/Flake essentially is a bill that would
irreparably harm the [program], if not render it meaningless,” Grella said.
“If travelers are discouraged from traveling to the
U.S., certainly those who have choices, which is most travelers, [are] going to
choose other places if we don’t make it enticing to come to us.”
Asked why collecting biometrics before arrival in the
U.S. would enhance security, Flake said, “[It] will allow for the running of
meaningful background checks on travelers before they board a transcontinental
jet bound for the U.S.”
Asked if there was a risk that increasing the cost
would decrease travel and harm the economy, he said, “As we move forward with
this process, I am focused on ensuring that we do not do anything that will
unnecessarily hinder people from taking advantage of the valuable [VWP].”