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Lawmakers Look To Change U.S. Visa Waiver Program

While dozens of governors have announced their opposition to Syrian refugees settling in their states, some senators are focusing their attention on a program they say poses a bigger threat of allowing terrorists into the country: the visa waiver program.

And while some lawmakers have been discussing changes to the program for months, they gained more support after one of the attackers in the Paris massacre appeared to have a Syrian passport that had been stamped in Greece. That provoked concern on this side of the Atlantic about how the U.S. government screens asylum seekers and refugees.

At least 19 million people visit the United States through the visa waiver program every year. And given that there are an estimated 3,000 fighters in Syria from Europe, the fear is that a jihadist could attempt to come to the U.S. on a European passport and not be subject to an in-person interview or in-depth screening.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called the program America's "Achilles' heel." She and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., are proposing legislation that will impose new restrictions, including requiring anyone who has traveled to Iraq or Syria in the previous five years to apply for a visa, whether or not their country is part of the visa waiver program.

That position is gaining adherents on Capitol Hill. "Were I in Europe already, and I wanted to go to the United States, and were I not on a watch list or a no-fly list and I wanted to get there, the likelihood is I would use the visa waiver program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., according to The Washington Post.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reported on Friday for Morning Edition, the visa waiver program has been in operation for decades:

"It used to be that if you were a person living abroad and you wanted to see the U.S., you had to first go to an American Embassy and get a visa. You would be interviewed by an embassy official who would ask about your background. Since the 1980s, residents of many countries no longer have to go through that process. In fact, 38 nations, including most of Europe are visa waiver countries. It's a largely hassle-free way to come to the U.S. for tourists and businesspeople. You'll need to answer a few questions on a form on the Internet, and have a passport with a digital photograph."

As Naylor reports, the Obama administration has said it is open to amending the program.