The Bush administration will ask Congress to change and expand a program that allows citizens of some countries to enter the U.S. without visas, but in exchange would require visitors to provide more data about themselves before they board planes.
During stops Tuesday in Latvia and Estonia, President Bush told officials of those countries he would try persuading Congress to add more countries to the program.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the program should be changed to increase security while also expanding the program to include new countries. For example, participating nations would be asked to quickly provide information on lost or stolen passports.
Expanding members, shifting standards
Officials did not say which other countries the administration might try adding to the program. Countries from Central and Eastern Europe have expressed interest in entering the program, which lets travelers enter the U.S. with only a passport.
The visa waiver program was created in 1988 and was originally focused on preventing illegal immigration into the country. But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the focus has shifted to security, and the program has been altered several times in hopes of strengthening the government's ability to detect and deter terrorists.
The new standards would apply to new member countries immediately and be phased in for current members, said Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen.
Agen said the program applies to citizens of 27 countries traveling to the United States for 90 days or less for tourism or business. About 15 million people visit the country under the program each year.
The 27 countries currently participating are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.