The Obama administration has announced some changes to the visa waiver program, which allows travelers from some 38 countries including France, Belgium and other European countries, to come to the U.S. without a visa.
The White House announced several steps, including attempting better tracking of past travel, fines for airlines that don’t verify passport data, assisting other countries on the screening of refugees and with border security.
It is also promising reports to the president in two months from the State Department and the FBI about how to include better fingerprinting and photographing, as well as an evaluation of the state of intelligence coordination between the U.S. and its allies.
The visa waiver program has come under scrutiny in the wake of the Paris attacks as a possible security gap — the idea being that Europeans, for example, who’ve gone to Syria to train with ISIS could then easily slip into the U.S. because of this program. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working on legislation aimed at tightening the program.
See below for some steps the administration is taking unilaterally, per a White House release. The White House has also indicated it is working with Congress on further changes:
“New Changes Announced Today
“Given the terrorist attacks in Paris and the ongoing threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters, the United States is aggressively strengthening its Visa Waiver Program and bolstering our relationships with VWP partners by immediately moving forward on the following administrative actions:
“· DHS will immediately take steps to modify its Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) applications to capture information from VWP travelers regarding any past travel to countries constituting a terrorist safe haven. The Director of National Intelligence, in coordination with the Secretary of Homeland Security, will identify and regularly review these countries so that traveler risk assessments can be made on the most up-to-date information.
“· The Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State and other appropriate agencies will accelerate its review process for VWP partner countries and within 60 days, will provide a full report to the President:
“· Identifying possible pilot programs designed to assess the collection and use of biometrics (fingerprints and/or photographs) in the VWP to effectively increase security; and
“· Identifying any countries that are deficient in key areas of cooperation, along with recommended options to engender compliance using a range of penalties and incentives available under his current authority including the more frequent submission of ESTAs and/or the suspension of ESTA issuances (new and/or renewals) for citizens of countries that fail to meet key metrics.
“· The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation will evaluate the terrorism information sharing that occurs between the United States and VWP countries, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security, and provide a report to the President of the United States within 60 days identifying options to mitigate any deficiencies.
“· DHS will offer assistance to countries to better facilitate terrorism information sharing, specifically to include biometric pilots. For example, DHS and the Terrorist Screening Center will assist all interested VWP countries in screening refugees or asylum seekers, including through the application of extensive terrorism information already provided to VWP members and through piloting capability for conducting near real time biometric checks.
“· The Secretaries of DHS, State, and Commerce will promote the Global Entry program among VWP partners to further expand this trusted traveler program, which includes biometrics.
“· The Secretary of Homeland Security will work with Congress to seek authority to increase Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) fines from $5,000 to $50,000 for air carriers that fail to verify a traveler’s passport data.
“· The Departments of Homeland Security and State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. intelligence community elements will deploy Foreign Fighter Surge Teams to work with countries to counter terrorist travel.
“· The Departments of Homeland Security and State will encourage and provide assistance as needed to enhance border security and legislation related to FTFs of our partner countries, and encourage more robust information sharing, better use of shared information, and more effective and efficient coordination between our partners.”