The 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R. 2029), enacted into law last week, includes new conditions on the Visa Waiver program. These provisions were included as a response to the recent tragic terrorist attacks in Europe and here in the U.S.
Specifically, the Visa Waiver program is no longer available to persons who have been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan or other countries designated by the Department of Homeland Security as supporting terrorism or “of concern”, on or after March 1, 2011. Certain exemptions apply, mostly related to military or government service.
Additionally, the Act excludes persons who are nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan from taking advantage of the Visa Waiver program.
The new law also enhances passport requirements for participants in the Visa Waiver program, specifies screening protocols, and increases information sharing between countries.
The Visa Waiver program allows persons from certain countries to travel to the United States as a Visitor for Business/Visitor for Pleasure (B-1/B-2) without first applying abroad at a U.S. Consulate for a visa. The application for a visa takes time and money, and requires an in-person interview with a consular officer. The Visa Waiver program facilitates international travel from countries which are viewed as allies, and these countries reciprocate the privilege to U.S. travelers.
Changes such as these were to be expected, as the White House and some in Congress called for review of the Visa Waiver program immediately after the attacks in Paris, and before San Bernandino. The Visa Waiver program presents easier access to the U.S. than the Syrian refugee program, which initially received more concern.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s press release states, “…I thank Congress for including in the omnibus measures to further strengthen the security of the Visa Waiver Program. Over the past year, the Administration has taken a series of steps to enhance security measures in the Visa Waiver Program. Congress has added to the security of the program with provisions that have the force of law.”
This is not the first time that security measures have targeted specific countries, or persons from countries of concern.
Most recently, after 9/11, the Government implemented a check in program called NSEERs. The NSEERs program was a failure, on many levels. NSEERs required men of a certain age from certain countries to check in with DHS at regular intervals.
I expect that we will see more measures like this in the coming year, based on the recent events and politics.