The Obama administration recently announced that it was relaxing newly implemented restrictions to the Department of State’s Visa Waiver Program. The announcement marks the quick backtracking of travel restrictions set up by the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015.” The Visa Waiver Program allows residents of certain countries to travel to the United States without a visa and remain in the country for up to 90 days. The act modified the Visa Waiver Program to exclude any national who had traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, or other selected countries within the previous five years. It also removed visa waiver as an option for dual status nationals with citizenship in both a visa waiver country and one of the restricted countries.
Residents of 38 countries who temporarily lost visa waiver privileges in December 2015 may now use the program with a few restrictions. A Corporate immigration lawyer can explain the changes in detail; but essentially, waiver eligibility was restored for those who traveled to restricted nations as long as they can prove their travel was for these legitimate purposes:
- Journalists who traveled to restricted countries for work reasons
- Those carrying out official duties for a humanitarian agency
- Travelers representing international or regional organizations
- Representatives of a provincial or local government
A proactive anti-terrorism measure
The act which changed the visa waiver program was introduced and passed with bi-partisan effort and support and signed into law on December 18, 2015. A corporate immigration lawyer might speculate that the act would not have passed as a stand-alone bill, but the sponsors did not wait to find out. Congress made it an add-on to the critically timed Consolidated Appropriations Act (Omnibus Spending Bill). The Appropriations Act was a last-minute deal to fund the government and prevent a pending shutdown. Its addition to a critical bill guaranteed that the Visa Waiver Act would be signed into law as well.
The Visa Waiver Act was introduced and passed with bi-partisan effort and support. It was designed as a proactive measure to prevent terrorists from legally entering the country. It included recommendations from Homeland Security Committee’s report,“Combatting Terrorists and Foreign Fighter Travel.” The Act made immediate changes to the Visa Waiver Program. As a Corporate immigration lawyer can explain, if left in place, these limitations would have the effect of establishing a road block for legitimate tourists, business representatives, visitors, and workers.
The “foreign fighter” threat
The recent acts of terrorism in Paris and the plots and violent acts described in Homeland Security’s report makes a reasonable case for tighter restrictions for those entering the country. The report outlined a history of terrorist acts committed by “jihadist foreign fighters.” It explained how foreign fighters leave home to join extremist groups, undergo military training, fight among terrorists, then often return to their home countries. Homeland Security considers these “returnees” a big factor in the foreign fighter threat. If they live in one of the 38 visa waiver countries, they could easily enter the U. S.
Visa issues are a small part of a bigger problem. Foreign fighters present a range of concerns as the various security agencies around the word fail to update and share critical identity information. Two of the fighters responsible for recent terrorist acts in Paris traveled to and from their home countries with forged papers.
Fake passports are also a problem
Politico.EU reports that some residents of France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Greece are now able to travel to the U. S. under the Visa Waiver Program, but their waiver privileges are in jeopardy. These countries have a problem with passport theft and forgery. They are working under a Feb 1 deadline to close the loopholes that allow easy use of forged or stolen documents. Otherwise, they will lose visa waiver privileges.
The changes should stay in place
While there have been no explanations as to the backtracking on visa waiver provisions enacted only a month ago, events in the news encourage speculation.
- The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 was forced in at the end of the year. It was attached to a bill that the president had to sign.
- A bipartisan group of senators planned to introduce changes of their own. They preferred restrictions that focused on an individual’s personal travel history instead of dual citizenship.
- Given Iran’s new relationship with the United States after executing a nuclear treaty, the country’s officials were not happy about being on a list of countries where travel would trigger a restriction in waiver privileges.
When an individual or corporation has questions about recent changes in the Visa Waiver Program, it’s important to get answers from a reliable source. A corporate immigration lawyer monitors changes in immigration and visa laws and can keep the process on track.