National Security

Trump Moves To Shore Up Security In Visa Waiver Program

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

The Trump administration announced Friday it will require countries in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to do more to screen U.S.-bound travelers and warn their citizens against breaking the terms of their travel authorization.

The new regulations apply to all members of the program, which allows the citizens of trusted countries to travel visa-free to the U.S. for a period of up to 90 days.

Under the tighter rules, VWP countries have to fully comply with a program that screens passengers against U.S. counterterrorism data and tighten vetting of airport personnel. Certain countries will also be required to roll out public awareness campaigns about U.S. immigration rules and the consequences of overstaying a visa.

The Department of Homeland Security is working with the foreign governments on a “cooperative basis” to develop custom security enhancements for each individual country, administration officials said on background. Many of the VWP countries already perform the required procedures, officials said, but the new guidelines are meant to ensure the enhanced screening is applied uniformly across the program.

There are more than 30 countries in the VWP, mostly in Europe and East Asia. U.S.-bound travelers from these countries can apply for a two-year electronic travel authorization that allows them to enter the U.S. without first having to apply for a visa.

The new security guidelines take effect immediately, but the partner countries will be given time to bring their screening and aviation vetting systems up to standard, administration officials said. Countries that aren’t able to meet the new requirements could face penalties such as narrowing the terms of travel validity or, in a worst case scenario, being removed from the VWP altogether.

“It’s critically important we stay ahead of these threats by improving our security posture,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement Friday. “These enhancements will strengthen the program, and they are part of our continued efforts to raise the baseline for homeland security across the board.”

Administration officials declined to elaborate which VWP countries have yet to implement the tighter screening standards, but they did single out four countries that have a higher-than-average visa overstay rate.

Hungary, Greece, Portugal and San Marino all have an overstay rate of greater than 2 percent, which means they will have to create public information campaigns to educate their citizens about the rules of the visa waiver system. VWP countries typically produce far fewer visa overstays than other nations — the rate for VWP members is less than 1 percent, while non-VWP countries average about 2.2 percent, according to administration officials.

Along with the new regulation, DHS also asked Congress to codify existing security procedures in the VWP: reporting terrorist information to multilateral organizations, collecting and analyzing traveler data, and allowing federal air marshals to fly on U.S. air carriers leaving from member countries. These programs should be written into law to “lock them in” and let other VWP countries know they are “here to stay,” administration officials said.

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