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Recent Changes to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program

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Many of my constituents have inquired about recent changes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) passed by Congress in response to the Paris terror attacks and the continuing threat of ISIS. The VWP reforms were included in comprehensive legislation to fund the entire government, known as the ‘Omnibus.’ This legislation was signed into law by the President on December 18, 2015.

The Visa Waiver Program was established by Congress in 1986 to allow citizens from 38 countries around the world to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. VWP countries often provide reciprocal treatment, permitting U.S. citizens to travel to their countries without a visa. Our 38 VWP partners are mostly European countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, as well as Australia and Japan. The VWP is an important tool for promoting international tourism and business.

The following are the most often asked questions by my constituents, with answers about what the legislation does, and what it does not do.

What changes did the 2016 Omnibus legislation make to the Visa Waiver Program?

The Omnibus made several reforms to address security vulnerabilities in the Visa Waiver Program. These changes require technological improvements to passports to make them more resistant to counterfeit, the screening of all travelers against INTERPOL databases, and regular threat assessments of countries that the U.S. partners with in the program.

Another security enhancement in the legislation is that visa-free travel is no longer allowed for any citizen of a VWP partner country who has recently traveled to (since March 1, 2011) or is a dual national of Iraq, Syria, or a country designated by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism. Currently, Syria, Iran, and Sudan are the only countries with this designation.

What is a dual national?

Dual nationals are dual citizens or individuals who are considered to be of two different nationalities through parentage, birth, marriage, or other determinations. Each country has different laws for who is considered a ‘national’ of their country. Any U.S. citizen is permitted to enter the United States regardless of whether they are also recognized as a national by another country.

Does this legislation change the Visa Waiver Program for American citizens?

No.

The legislation has no direct impact on American citizens, even those who have dual nationality or who have recently traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan. The legislation does not limit the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to any country, or to return to the United States from abroad. The bill only applies to those citizens of our 38 VWP partner countries who have recently traveled to or are dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Sudan.

Does the legislation bar citizens of VWP countries from traveling to the United States?

No.

The legislation does not bar anyone from traveling to the United States, including citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries who have recently traveled to or are dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Sudan. The legislation simply requires these individuals to obtain a visitor visa before traveling to the U.S. Obtaining a visa requires a security check, an in-person interview at a U.S. Consulate, and a $160 fee. Often, applicants will receive multiple-entry visas valid for 10 years. This is the same visa process that is required for citizens of Mexico and almost all other non-VWP countries who wish to travel to the U.S.

Why were these changes made to the Visa Waiver Program?

It is critical for the U.S. to close loopholes in the program to ensure that terrorists cannot use it to travel to the United States. All of the identified terrorists who attacked Paris were French or Belgian nationals who could have traveled to the U.S. without a visa under the VWP.

Will our 38 partner countries respond to this legislation by implementing similar visa requirements for American citizens?

Since the VWP is a reciprocal program concerns have been expressed, particularly by those in the Iranian-American community, that our VWP partner countries will institute similar visa requirements on U.S. citizens. It remains to be seen how and when the Department of Homeland Security will implement this new law and whether our partners will implement similar visa requirements for U.S. citizens. However, Secretary of State John Kerry recently indicated in a December 19, 2015 letter to the Iranian Foreign Minister that the Administration could waive the requirements of the law in certain cases and that implementation will not interfere with the legitimate business interests of Iran.

Does the Omnibus legislation bar refugees from entering the United States?

No.

The legislation does not shut down the U.S. refugee resettlement program for victims of ISIS. Other Republican-led legislation offered in the wake of the Paris attacks would have shut out all refugees from Iraq and Syria but this was not included in the Omnibus and was not signed into law. All of the Paris attackers who have been identified by authorities were EU nationals who could have entered the U.S. through the Visa Waiver Program, but none were refugees.

Does the Omnibus legislation impact European citizens of Iranian descent?

Yes.

Many of my constituents are concerned because their family members in Europe and other VWP countries will need to obtain visas for travel to the United States under this bill. This is due to how Iranian law works. If an individual was born to an Iranian father, they are considered an Iranian ‘national’ under Iranian law and may no longer be eligible for visa-free travel. To address this concern, a bipartisan group of Members introduced the Equal Protection in Travel Act to repeal the Omnibus legislation’s restriction on VWP travel for dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Sudan. The Omnibus was a compromise measure that included important security enhancements to the VWP and did not include refugee limitations on the most vulnerable people in the world, which was previously proposed. I supported this compromise, as did over 300 of my colleagues, but I also support efforts to improve it to ensure that individuals who pose no threat to the United States are not forced to undergo unnecessary security checks.

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