CONGRESS TO TIGHTEN VISA WAIVER PROGRAM

On December 18, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act when it passed its fiscal year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. The appropriations bill was later signed into law by President Obama. The Terrorist Travel Prevention legislation includes wide-ranging reforms of the Visa Waiver Program intended to prevent persons with ties to countries that support terrorism from gaining entry to the U.S. as citizens of countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program.  (Residents of participating countries are permitted to enter the U.S. without first obtaining a Visa.)

The most prominent provision of the Act prohibits citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan, or travelers who have visited these countries within the last four years, from entering the U.S. under the terms of the waiver program.  While the Department of Homeland Security has expressed some concern over its ability to enforce this particular travel restriction, carriers providing transportation to the U.S. should assume that the restrictions will become effective as proposed.  In addition to the restrictions discussed above, the bill includes a number of additional modifications to the VWP, such as:

  • Starting April 1, 2016, persons traveling under the VWP must present electronic passports that comply with international standards, are machine readable, and include biometric information on the passenger.
  • No later than 270 days after the bill becomes law, participating countries must certify that they are consulting Interpol databases and information sources to screen each non-citizen entering or exiting their country for “unlawful activities” and that they are sharing any relevant information collected with the U.S.; countries that do not comply with the screening and sharing requirements may be lose their designation as a VWP participant.
  • The bill mandates that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary of State, and National Security Director determine within 60 days of the bill becoming law (i.e., after the bill is signed by President Obama) whether any other countries constitute “areas of concern” based on their support for terrorism and/or policy of harboring terrorists.
  • Within 60 days of the bill becoming law, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall submit a report to Congress evaluating each VWP participant country’s potential terrorist threat to the U.S. and whether any participant country presents a “high risk” of terrorism to the U.S. and should be prohibited from participating in the VWP.
  • The bill further requires that the Secretary of Homeland Security submit a report to Congress within 90 days of the bill becoming law on each VWP participant country’s compliance with the program’s requirements and the potential threat to U.S. security each country’s participation in the program may or may not represent.

If you have any questions, please contact Evelyn Sahr (esahr@eckertseamans.com, 202-659-6622), Drew Derco (dderco@eckertseamans.com, 202-659-6665), or Reese Davidson (rdavidson@eckertseamans.com, 202-659-6633).

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