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Lawmakers urge changes to Visa Waiver Program

Andy Uhler Nov 19, 2015
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Since the Paris attacks, there’s been mounting concern about who’s getting into the United States. Some lawmakers want to tighten something called the Visa Waiver Program, which makes it easier for people from 38 foreign  countries. One proposal would make people who’d traveled to Syria and Iraq ineligible for those waivers. Another would introduce a waiting period. The U.S. travel industry doesn’t like the idea.

Most of the people using the Visa Waiver Program are tourists from one of the countries on the “OK” list. They don’t have to go through the sometimes lengthy and expensive process of applying for a visa. Jonathan Grella, spokesman for the U.S.  Travel Association, said international travelers spend a lot of money here. According to his group’s estimates, that number was close to $200 billion last year.

“The harder we make it for people to enter the country, the less likely they’re going to choose America over somewhere else,” he said. “And that might sound like an OK thing today to some, but obviously that comes with very severe economic consequences.”

Even so, some lawmakers say continuing the program without changing it would make it easier for terrorists to slip through. Nathan Sales, a law professor at Syracuse University, said the Visa Waivers Program was updated after the terrorist attacks of  September 11, 2001.

“The Visa Waiver Program requires all member countries to provide the United States with important information about known and suspected terrorists,” he said.

Sales recognized there are gaps in travel security, but he said new rules aren’t the answer.

“Strengthen the security features of the program even more,” he said. “Fully implement the information sharing agreements and agree to share additional information about airline passenger data.”

Some countries are more willing to share information than others, citing privacy concerns.

The travel industry agrees security is key because people won’t come to America if they don’t think it’s safe. But, Shane Downey with the Global Business Travel Association said overreaction could be costly. 

“It would discourage people from coming into the United States to do business, is what it would do,” he said. “They would find another location to go to that’s not as difficult to go into.”

Supporters of stricter rules say easy access means more business, but also more risk.

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