White House Enhances Security of the Visa Waiver Program



By Alexandra LaCombe


Prompted by the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, the Obama Administration is taking immediate action to increase the security of the Visa Waiver Program, which facilitates the travel of 20 million tourist and business visitors each year. The additional security measures are intended to further scrutinize travelers and improve information sharing between countries. Congress is also expected to provide statutory authority for additional security enhancements in the coming weeks.

The White House announced a plan last Monday to further enhance the security of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. The new security measures are intended to thwart similar attacks in the United States by increasing intelligence sharing between VWP countries and information collection about travelers’ past visits to countries considered terrorist safe havens. Though the Obama Administration has taken a series of steps over the past year to improve the security of the VWP, the announcement is expected to accelerate these changes and add additional safeguards.

The VWP, which facilitates the travel of over 20 million people per year, allows tourists and business visitors from 38 countries to enter the United States for up to 90 days without first having to obtain a visa at a U.S. consulate. Although VWP travelers undergo counterterrorism screening through Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), they are not required to appear in person for a visa interview, nor are they subject to a biometrics background check.  The VWP includes primarily European countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Chile, and Brunei.

Among the new security measures is a modified ESTA application that will screen applicants on their visits to countries deemed terrorist safe havens. In addition, the Administration has offered American assistance to VWP partner countries in order to better facilitate information sharing about passengers, broadly combat terrorist travel and enhance border security. The White House also plans to expand the Global Entry program’s trusted traveler program and increase fines imposed against airlines that fail to verify passengers’ identities.

The Department of Homeland Security will accelerate its review of VWP partner countries and provide a report to the President within sixty days that recommends pilot biometrics programs, identifies VWP partner countries deficient in key areas of cooperation, and recommends compliance incentives, such as ESTA suspension, for noncompliant countries.

The White House has acknowledged the limitations of these new measures and has called on Congress to pass legislation to further tighten controls. Specifically, Congress has been asked to:

  • Enhance mechanisms that identify those who have traveled to conflict zones to train or fight with terrorist organizations or other adversaries and increase information sharing between VWP partners and INTERPOL;
  • Maximize the use of international agencies like INTERPOL to track lost and stolen travel documents and prevent their illegal use;
  • Accelerate the requirement that VWP travelers use passports with embedded security chips; and
  • Expand the use of the pre-clearance program at airports in VWP countries.

Legislation in these areas is expected this month.

The increased restrictions on the visa waiver program will undoubtedly make it more burdensome for visitors to travel easily to the United States, impacting tourists and business visitors as well as businesses that rely heavily on foreign tourism. VWP travelers should expect additional screening measures in their ESTA applications and may also experience more lengthy processing times.

If you need assistance with this, or any other immigration issue, please contact the author, Alexandra LaCombe, at (248) 649-5404 or alacombe@fragomen.com.  Alexandra is a Member of the Legal Affairs Committee of Detroit SHRM and a partner at Fragomen Worldwide (a Resource Partner of Detroit SHRM).

Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles with others, inside and outside their organization, as long as its name and logo, and the author’s information, is included in the re-post of the article. December 2015.