Thursday, December 10, 2015
On Tuesday, the House approved a new bill, H.R. 158, titled the "Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015." It sailed through the House on a vote of 407-19.
The bill is expected to easily pass a Senate vote, perhaps as part of a spending bill. It's supported by President Obama and likely will become law by the end of the year.
The bill requires countries participating in the visa waiver program (VWP) to issue and validate machine readable, electronic passports that are "fraud-resistant" with "biographic and biometric information."
Section three of bill states that the VWP will not be open to travelers who have "been present" in Iraq, Syria, Iran or the Sudan since March of 2011. Let's break that down.
Iraq and Syria are mentioned by name in H.R. 158. Iran and the Sudan are mentioned by proxy as they, like Syria, have been identified as "state sponsors of terrorism." The bill leaves open the possibility of adding additional countries to the exclusion list.
So, what is the significance of March 2011? That's when the Arab Spring began.
Back to the bill. It also excludes individuals who are nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran or the Sudan, "regardless of whether the alien is a national of a program country." That is, certain dual citizens will be excluded.
The geographic exclusion will not apply to military personnel or those working for their government full time while in those nations. Journalists, doctors, and missionaries, other obvious groups with reason to be present in these countries, are not mentioned, though other waivers will be available.
The bill imposes duties on our VWP partners, including the duty to screen all admitted and departing noncitizens through Interpol databases and to share information about potential threats. Countries that are deemed to be "high risk" may be suspended from the VWP program altogether.