While Congress may be backing away from targeting the refugee resettlement program in reaction to recent terrorist attacks, lawmakers appear to have found a new target: the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP allows travelers from certain countries to enter the United States without obtaining a visa in advance. Currently, 38 countries, including France, the United Kingdom and Taiwan, are part of this program, with over 20 million visitors utilizing it each year. It was created to facilitate more efficient inbound travel to the U.S. and requires pre-screening of travelers who are pre-approved through the program. In designating a country to participate, the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, considers only those the U.S. holds “the best law-enforcement and security relationships with.”
At the end of November, the White House announced new security enhancements for the VWP and a willingness to work with Congress to make additional improvements.
Tuesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed, H.R. 158, the Visa Waiver Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 by a vote of 407 to 19. The text of this bill, like the refugee bill passed in November, was rushed to the floor with little review (no committee markup or hearings on the legislation). The bill terminates VWP travel privileges for all citizens of VWP countries who are also nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan, essentially singling out and discriminating based on nationality and national origin. It also excludes all individuals who have traveled since March 1, 2011 to certain countries– including Syria, Iraq and other designated countries. The bill also establishes additional reporting and eligibility requirements for VWP countries and enhancements to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
Many organizations expressed concern over the language, saying it is overbroad and will have unintended consequences, with one example being making it potentially more difficult for journalists and humanitarian aid workers to travel.
And, according to media reports the European Union is concerned as well. David O’Sullivan, the European Union ambassador to the U.S., said visa-waiver members are “really quite concerned about what is happening and fear that this could be extremely counterproductive.”
Despite the criticism, and partly due to the lopsided vote in the House Tuesday, there is a great deal of discussion about including this bill in the Omnibus spending bill, a must pass bill that will keep the government from shutting down. The current spending bill is set to expire this Friday, December 11, 2015. Those discussions, however, are still ongoing, and for now, the VWP bill heads over to the Senate, which has a variety of its own VWP proposals.
In the wake of several recent tragedies, the rush is on in Congress to take steps to keep America safe. Hopefully, in the process, Congress does not make careless and hurried decisions that discriminate against particular nationalities and dismantle useful programs.