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White House zeroes in on visa waiver program. Will Congress follow suit?

The Obama administration's changes to the visa waiver program is an effort to respond to rising security concerns in the wake of the Paris attacks. 

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In an effort to respond to security concerns after the Paris attacks, the Obama administration on Monday announced changes to the US program that lets tourists from nearly 40 countries into the country without a visa.

The announcement comes as lawmakers from both parties point out that the “visa waiver” program could pose a greater security threat than the more hot-button issue of resettling Syrian refugees across the nation. The current program permits passport holders from 38 countries, including Belgium and France, to enter the United States without a visa and stay for up to 90 days.

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“If a terrorist is going to try to come into this country, they’re much more likely to use loopholes in the visa waiver program to do it, instead of waiting two years to go through the refugee screening process,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York earlier this month.

While FBI director James Comey has acknowledged that the vetting process for refugees is not totally risk free, the 18- to 24-month procedure involves interviews and the collection of biometric data by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. US officials then conduct a second layer of screening and biometric checking. As the Monitor’s Francine Kiefer reported:

Compare that to the expedited visa-waiver program, which brings 20 million visitors to the US each year for tourist and business travel. The waiver for a special entry visa covers most of the European countries, Chile, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. Passport holders are screened, but minimally. For instance, there's no requirement for an in-person interview.

The issue is of particular concern now because of foreign fighters traveling to Syria or Iraq for training, then returning to home countries covered by the visa-waiver program. Foreign fighters could conceivably use the visa-waiver program to then get to the US.

In a fact sheet released Monday, the White House announced it would be taking administrative steps to strengthen the visa waiver program, such as improving tracking of past travel, imposing fines for carriers that fail to verify passport data, and assisting other countries with border security.

It would also be partnering with Congress “to provide statutory authority for many of the key security enhancements” of the program, including attempting to better identify individuals who have traveled to conflict zones, exploring the use of biometrics in the screening process, and accelerating the requirement for all visa waiver program travelers to use passports security chips.

In Congress, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona have co-sponsored a visa waiver reform bill; while in the House, a bipartisan task force on the Committee on Homeland Security recently identified the program as a problem.

Lawmakers from tourist states have expressed concern about how such restrictions might affect the industry, and The Hill reports that the administration’s efforts are likely to meet resistance from stakeholders who rely on the business brought in by millions of foreign visitors every year.

“In the aftermath of 9/11, America and its leaders chose freedom over fear, which enabled our nation’s recovery on multiple levels. That was the proper instinct then and it remains so now,” US Travel Association President Roger Dow said in a statement following calls for tighter visa restrictions in November.

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“The Visa Waiver Program is an effective, essential security tool that we cannot afford to relinquish, especially when it played zero role in the Paris attacks,” he continued. “Let's address the security problems we have, rather than creating new ones.”

Still, even those who have showed some skepticism towards reforming the visa waiver program – such as Republican intelligence committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina – acknowledge that the issues merits some focus.

“Were I in Europe already, and I wanted to go to the United States and I was not on a watch list or a no-fly list and I wanted to get there, the likelihood is I’d use the visa waiver program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee,” he said.