4 Things To Know About Visa Waivers And Security The visa waiver program allowed 20 million travelers into the U.S. last year. Many say it poses a bigger threat than the refugee resettlement program.
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4 Things To Know About Visa Waivers And Security

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4 Things To Know About Visa Waivers And Security

4 Things To Know About Visa Waivers And Security

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And here's the progression of the security debate in the U.S. First, many politicians demanded the U.S. stop accepting Syrian refugees. President Obama and others responded that that makes no sense. It's hard to be accepted as a refugee. It's more likely an attacker would travel here as a tourist, often even not needing a visa. Now lawmakers are responding to that. They're questioning the visa waiver program that let 20 million people travel freely into the U.S. last year alone. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It used to be if you were a person living abroad and you wanted to see the USA, you had to first go to an American embassy and get a visa. You'd be interviewed by an embassy official who would ask about your background. But 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 business people - maybe too easy, says Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: This program is important to the business community and the tourism industry. And I have supported it. But I also believe it is the soft underbelly of our national security policies.

NAYLOR: Feinstein and other lawmakers are worried about the thousands of Europeans who have gone to Syria to fight alongside ISIS. They return to France or Belgium, say, and could then hop on a flight to the U.S. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee says the visa waiver program has too many gaps.

BOB CORKER: A massive, large numbers of foreign fighters in those countries and obviously there are questions as to whether those people could easily travel to the United States or not.

NAYLOR: Feinstein is proposing legislation to tighten the visa waiver program in attempt to keep those foreign fighters out. The bill would require people who've traveled to Syria or Iraq in the past five years to go through an interview in order to get a U.S. visa. Of course, given the porous Syrian border, it's not easy to say for sure who has traveled there. The Department of Homeland Security did tighten the program earlier this year including requiring foreign travelers from waiver countries to carry passports with biometric data embedded on computer chips. Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, says his group supports closing loopholes, but he warns against making any major changes.

ROGER DOW: Twenty million people come to the United States to do business, to go to school here, to visit and that would put severe restrictions on those people coming. These are legitimate travelers, so we need to continually look at these programs. It's the best security system we have, and we should continue it. And to push it aside, I think, is foolish and weakening security.

NAYLOR: The Obama administration says it's open to making further changes to the program. Frank Cilluffo, who runs the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, says it's a delicate balance.

FRANK CILLUFFO: We want to be open to foreign travelers, we want to be open to foreign cultures, we want to be open for business. But the flipside is is we've got an acute security threat right now, and it probably begs some questions to recalibrate, at least in the short-term, or to further button up, maybe, the visa waiver program as we know it.

NAYLOR: Feinstein says she intends to introduce her legislation after Thanksgiving. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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