In response to the deadly Paris terror attacks earlier this month, the Obama administration announced today that the United States will be tightening its security screening process for travelers coming from the 38 countries whose citizens do not need a visa to enter the country.
Under the new measures, the Department of Homeland Security will immediately start to collect more information from travelers who have been to "countries constituting a terrorist safe haven," the White House said in a statement. DHS is planning to work with Congress for authorization to implement additional screening for travelers and increase fines for air carriers that fail to verify passport data. It is also seeking the ability to require all travelers to use passports with embedded security chips.
The Obama administration is also seeking to expand a "pre-clearance program" in foreign airports to allow American border officials to collect and screen biometric information, such as fingerprints, before visa waiver travelers can board airplanes to the US.
US Customs and Border Protection is currently in negotiations with airports in seven countries — Belgium, Japan, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The White House did not specify whether it expects to impose special restrictions on travelers from specific countries, such as Belgium or France, that have been a substantial source of foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq to join radical insurgent groups like the Islamic State.
A task force in the House of Representatives is planning 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 making sure they are submitting any information on lost and stolen passports to Interpol.
There are 38 countries whose citizens are allowed to travel and stay in the US for 90 days without first obtaining a visa. These countries, which are generally wealthy and friendly to the US, include much of Western Europe, some Caribbean islands, and several Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.
Fearing that potential attackers would sneak into the US as refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks, lawmakers in the House of Representatives quickly passed a bill that would bar refugees from Syria and Iraq from entering the country until security officials certify that they are not threats. But US officials have quietly acknowledged that they are far more worried about the possibility that would-be attackers from the Islamic State or other militant groups could enter the US as travelers from visa waiver countries rather than as Syrian refugees, which are rigorously screened prior to resettlement.
Refugees must undergo a background security check that takes 18 to 24 months before they are allowed to board flights to the US. In contrast, an estimated 20 million people fly into the country each year from visa waiver countries such as France and Britain. A European traveling to Syria to train with a group like the Islamic State could later enter the US without much scrutiny if the person is not already known to US intelligence or its allies — a fact that American officials have publicly acknowledged.
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