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].”

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