The White House on Monday announced changes to a U.S. visa waiver program aimed at more tightly screening travelers from 38 nations not required to get visas before traveling to the United States.
The security "enhancements" — which come after deadly terror attacks in Paris earlier this month which left 130 dead — include the Department of Homeland Security working to gather more information from travelers about past visits to countries such as Syria and Iraq, the White House said.
The White House characterized the "enhancements" as a move that would stymie terrorists who try to use lost or stolen passports to travel.
“Where we have opportunities to make meaningful enhancements we won't hesitate,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters gathered in Paris for the U.N. climate change summit on Monday. “We are clear eyed about the stakes.”
The nation’s nearly 30-year-old visa waiver program helps bring nearly 20 million people from 38 countries — most of them in Europe — to the U.S. ever year with less stringent screening.
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The program’s advocates, which includes a cross-section of lawmakers from tourism reliant states and the businesses that support them, have said the program offers an economic boost. Opponents worry the program could serve as a backdoor for would-be terrorists to travel to ISIS-run terrorist training camps in other countries, head back to Europe and then use the program to come to America.
The changes come as the Obama administration faces pushback from governors and lawmakers in Congress against plans to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next fiscal year.
“As opposed to the rhetoric we have heard from the Republicans, the administration is offering it as an alternative...to rationalize and strengthen the programs that track persons so we have better information and can implement cautious policies,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
While polls have shown that a majority of Americans also oppose the plan, officials such as CIA Director John Brennan to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. the chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee and California Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein, the committee's ranking member are far more worried that the visa waiver program is a greater concern in that it makes it harder to track would-be terrorists.
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As the administration works to address those concerns, Homeland Security will also look at pilot programs for collecting biometric information such as fingerprints from visa waiver travelers, the White House said in a statement.
A task force in the House of Representatives plans to meet on Tuesday to discuss the program and wants to craft legislation to pass "by the end of the year," Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, said on Monday.
McCarthy told reporters that lawmakers were interested in requiring all countries in the waiver program to issue “e-passports” with chips and biometrics. And one change would be to make sure that passengers were screened against a database of lost and stolen passports.
In the meantime, the White House said administration officials are talking to senators from both parties about the visa waiver program changes and are urging Congress to give Homeland Security additional powers to increase fines for air carriers that fail to verify passport data and require all travelers to use passports with embedded security chips.
The White House also wants to expand the use of a "pre-clearance program" in foreign airports to allow U.S. border officials to collect and screen biometric information before visa waiver travelers can board airplanes to the United States.
"Congress should take these steps before they leave for the holidays," Earnest told reporters.