Wall Street Journal
By Miriam Jordan
January 21, 2016
In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in California and Paris, the Obama administration announced Thursday that it has begun implementing changes to a program that has allowed nationals from dozens of countries, primarily in Europe, to enter the U.S. on tourism or business without a visa.
According to a joint statement by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, nationals of countries that participate in the “visa-waiver program” who are also citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria will no longer be eligible to gain automatic admission to the U.S.
Those who don’t hold dual nationality but have visited those countries on or after March 2011 will also no longer be eligible for visa-free entry, the statement said.
Individuals in both categories will have to “apply for a visa using the regular immigration process at our embassies or consulates,” the statement said. That means they will undergo vetting that requires an interview with a U.S. consular official overseas.
Nationals of visa-waiver program countries must file an electronic form—with biographic, citizenship, travel and other information—to determine eligibility to travel to the U.S. and whether such travel poses any law-enforcement or security risk.
The announcement follows a law passed by Congress in December to tighten the visa-waiver program, which was aimed at preventing Europeans who have joined Islamic State and other terrorist groups from entering the U.S.
About 20 million people annually enter the U.S. visa-free from 38 countries through expedited electronic processing. Most countries in the visa-waiver program are in Europe, including France, Belgium and Germany. But the program also includes Japan, South Korea and Singapore. The statement said “the great majority of visa-waiver program travelers will not be affected by the legislation.”
The visa-waiver program came under scrutiny after the Paris attacks in November.
Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles immigration attorney who was formerly an immigration official, said the changes based on nationality address only part of the problem. For example, he said, “someone born in France who had never set foot in the Middle East could be involved in terrorist activities and would not be covered by the new restrictions.”
“It’s more complex than just changing the visa-waiver program,” he said.
The Homeland Security secretary has the right to waive the new restrictions “if he determines that such a waiver is in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States,” the statement said. Such waivers will be granted on a case-by-case basis, it added.
Some GOP leaders said they opposed the administration’s plan to consider waiving the new requirements for those who had traveled for certain government, humanitarian or journalistic purposes, or to Iran or Iraq on business.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) and Rep. Candice Miller (R., Mich.) said in a statement that “these exemptions were not included in the legislation, which passed the House by a bipartisan vote of 409 to 21, yet the administration now claims they can apply such waivers.”
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