The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Friday new rules for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) aimed at preventing terrorism and stopping visa overstays.
The VWP, administered by DHS, allows citizens of 38 countries with close ties to the United States to travel to the United States for business or tourism for up to 90 days without acquiring a visa. In exchange, U.S. citizens receive reciprocal travel rights to each of those countries.
Some 20 million travelers come to the United States using the VWP every year, according to a senior administration official. VWP expected departures made up about 43 percent of total expected immigration departures in 2016.
The tightened security requirements are in part meant to address the threat from potential terrorists with citizenship making them eligible for the VWP. Such concerns were first raised in November of 2015, when it was discovered that several of the perpetrators of the terror attacks in Paris had French and Belgian citizenship, making them VWP-eligible.
The VWP's lower levels of scrutiny mean that such individuals would be able to enter the United States with relative ease. Travelers taking advantage of the VWP need only undergo a biographic security screening, foregoing fingerprinting and a security interview with a U.S. official.
The new regulations preserve the lower level of scrutiny, but require that VWP countries more fully implement safety measures. That includes systematically screening travelers using U.S. counterterrorism information. DHS will also assess VWP countries' safeguards against aviation security threats.
"The United States faces an adaptive and agile enemy, as terrorists continue to explore ways to reach our country and to direct, enable, and inspire attacks against us," said newly appointed DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. "It's critically important we stay ahead of these threats by improving our security posture. These enhancements will strengthen the program, and they are part of our continued efforts to raise the baseline for homeland security across the board."
The new regulations also address overstays beyond the 90 day limit set by the VWP. DHS estimated that there were some 147,000 overstays in 2016, an overstay rate of approximately 0.68 percent.
DHS will therefore require that, in VWP countries where more than two percent of citizens overstay, the relevant government authorities implement a public information campaign to educate nationals on the conditions for admission to the United States. Countries with more than two percent overstays include Greece, Hungary, and Portugal.
DHS further called on Congress to officially codify existing VWP requirements, which would provide them with the full force of law. It specifically requested that Congress codify the reporting of foreign terrorist fighter information to international crime-fighting organizations like INTERPOL and EUROPOL, aid the systematic collection of traveler data, and allow U.S. Federal Air Marshals to travel on U.S. air carriers for last point of departure flights to the United States.
While the VWP will face stronger scrutiny, administration officials still consider it a hallmark for immigration security. That's because other nations are forced to adhere to standards set by the United States to earn its privileges.
"We consider the VWP itself to be a net positive when it comes to security," a senior administration official said.
According to a senior administration official, the new standards are expected to take effect immediately. DHS expects to develop engagement plans with VWP partners to support implementation of the new standards.