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U.S. Begins Implementation Of New Limits On Visa Waiver Program

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U.S. Begins Implementation Of New Limits On Visa Waiver Program

National Security

U.S. Begins Implementation Of New Limits On Visa Waiver Program

U.S. Begins Implementation Of New Limits On Visa Waiver Program

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The State Department has released details of new limits on the visa waiver program, which allows people from 38 countries to fast-track their travel to the U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Europeans and other people from countries that have good relations with the U.S. are used to coming here pretty easily. You buy an airplane ticket. You fill out an online travel authorization, and that's it. But after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Congress demanded tighter rules for those who have some connection to Iraq, Syria, Sudan or Iran. Now the State Department and Homeland Security have begun following through. NPR's Michele Kelemen is here to walk us through what the changes are. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Explain what exactly the changes are and who needs to worry about them.

KELEMEN: Well, there are 38 countries, most of them in Europe, that are part of what's called the Visa Waiver Program. So nationals of these countries, as you said, usually go online before a trip, fill out an application online. It's routine. It comes back within a couple of days, and they're all set. But now Homeland Security is looking out for people who have traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan in the past five years. Those people will have to go to the U.S. embassy and actually apply for a visa now, also people who are from those countries but also might be dual nationals - so for instance, a British citizen who's also holding an Iranian nationality, as was the case of a BBC journalist.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what happened in her case.

KELEMEN: Her name is Rana Rahimpour. She said she heard about the legislation but was reassured that these rules weren't in effect yet. So she went to that usual website, known ESTA, applied. But by the time her flight was coming around, her request was still pending. So when she was supposed to fly out to go visit her brother, the embassy in London said, well, why don't you just go to the airport and call ESTA? And here's what she heard back.

RANA RAHIMPOUR: They said the reason it has been pending is because of my other nationality, which is Iranian. They said because of the new legislations, I can no longer enjoy the visa waiver services, and I have to go to the U.S. embassy and apply for a visa.

KELEMEN: So she missed her nephew's sixth birthday, and she says this is particularly frustrating to her that she's now seen by U.S. authorities as Iranian more than British.

SHAPIRO: And so has there been much backlash either in the U.S. or from these other countries?

KELEMEN: Well, there's a lot of confusion. I mean, usually visa rules like this are reciprocal. European ambassadors here have been critical of this new legislation. So I would say watch this phase. Some U.S. lawmakers seem to regret this bill at this point because there's a lot of confusion here while others are complaining today that the Obama administration is being too lenient in implementing this.

SHAPIRO: And are there exemptions to this rule?

KELEMEN: There are, I mean, for people that are going to Iran, for instance, in - to do business that's allowed under the nuclear deal. There's also exemptions for aid workers and journalists or people who travel to all these countries on behalf of international organizations. But again, these people do have to go through that online application first, and Homeland Security has to decide whether or not they get exempted or they need to get a visa. And as we saw in that case of the BBC journalist, this is very much a work in progress.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Michele Kelemen speaking with us from the State Department - thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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