After Paris Attacks Changes to the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA) to Enhance Security

by Joseph McKeown

In response to the Paris terror attacks, the White House yesterday announced changes to the Visa Waiver Program, used by approximately 20 million visitors per year for citizens of thirty-eight program partner countries around the world. The changes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), also known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), are designed to counter the “ongoing threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters” who might use the program, and are meant to “aggressively” strengthen the program and bolster relationships with the VWP’s partners. These changes come after new countries were added to the VWP program and other security enhancements were made earlier this year.

What Are the New Changes?

The Obama administration is instructing government agencies to move forward with the following security enhancements:

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will immediately modify its applications to obtain information from VWP travelers regarding any past travel to “countries constituting a terrorist safe haven” and work in conjunction with the Director of National Intelligence to identify and review these countries to make traveler risk assessments;
  • DHS along with other agencies will accelerate its review process for VWP partner countries and provide a report to the President within sixty days regarding possible pilot programs to assess the collection and use of biometrics (fingerprints and/or photographs) to increase security and also identify any countries that are deficient in key areas of cooperation;
  • The FBI director will evaluate the terrorism information sharing and any deficiencies between the US and VWP countries in consultation with other agencies and provide the president a report within sixty days;
  • DHS will offer assistance to VWP countries to better facilitate terrorism information sharing, including for screening refugees or asylum seekers;
  • US government agencies will promote the Global Entry program among VWP partners to further expand this trusted traveler program;
  • DHS will work with Congress to seek permission to increase Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) fines from $5,000 to $50,000 for air carriers that fail to verify a traveler’s passport data; and
  • US government agencies will deploy Foreign Fighter Surge Teams to work with countries to counter terrorist travel and provide assistance as needed to enhance border security and legislation.

Working with Congress to Enhance the VWP

In addition to these security changes, the White House will work with Congress to provide statutory authority for many key security enhancements to the VWP, including:

  • Improve ability to identify individuals who have traveled to conflict zones to train or fight with terrorist organizations and coordinate information between VWP partners and INTERPOL;
  • Use international agencies such as INTERPOL to track lost and stolen travel documents to prevent their usage as well as general information sharing to use in border screening activities for VWP partner countries;
  • Accelerate requirement for 100% of VWP travelers to use e-passports with security chips and also see how biometrics could be effectively added to the VWP process; and
  • Expand the preclearance program so Customs and Border Protection officers can inspect passengers and their baggage at foreign airports prior to departing for the United States.

Even More Changes to the VWP

In addition to the Obama administration’s VWP changes, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jeff Flake plan to introduce legislation that would prohibit anyone who has traveled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years from traveling to the United States using the VWP and instead require them to obtain a traditional visa stamp.

Not everyone is welcoming changes to the Visa Waiver Program. California Travel Association President Barbara Newton and leaders of several California tourism boards are concerned that changes to the VWP could affect the billion-dollar tourism industry. “We certainly support security and safety of our citizens and everyone around the world,” Newton said to the LA Times. “But we don’t want to see the government do something that would disrupt business and travel.”