By David Inserra 3/22/2016 – The Heritage Foundation.
For those Americans hoping to visit Europe this year, the U.S. government may have made your life more difficult.
Last year’s omnibus appropriations bill included a provision that restricted a program that allows some foreigners to visit the U.S. without a visa. The problem is that the program is a reciprocal arrangement. So when we restricted our program, it gave Europeans the right to restrict theirs, making it harder for Americans to visit.
And that’s exactly what they will soon consider doing. Members of Congress were warned this could happen. Unfortunately, they didn’t listen.
In addition to making travelers’ lives easier, the U.S. visa waiver program is a security boon. To join it, member countries must share information with the U.S. on lost and stolen passports, known and suspected terrorists, and serious criminals. They also have to strengthen airport security and improve their travel documents.
Visa waiver travelers are still vetted against many of the same watch lists and intelligence databases as those traveling under traditional visas — they just don’t have to be interviewed at a U.S. consulate. That exemption allows consular officials to focus their limited resources on other individuals and nations that pose a greater threat to the U.S.
So, why is the European Union considering restrictions on U.S. travelers? Following in uptick in terrorists attacks last fall, Congress felt the need to “do something” to counter terrorism. Following San Bernardino, this impulse grew even stronger. So Congress focused on the visa waiver program, because it had absolutely nothing to do with either terrorist attack.
If that last line confuses you, it should. The Paris attackers did not use the visa waiver program. Neither did San Bernardino’s Syed Farook, an American-born citizen radicalized in the U.S. His terrorist bride entered through the traditional visa system, not the visa waiver program.
Rather than looking at domestic counterterrorism or our intelligence and vetting tools, Congress decided to restrict the visa waiver program. Specifically, it barred from the program anyone who had recently traveled to — or held dual citizenship with certain dangerous countries like Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan. Those individuals now must use the traditional visa system — the one that failed to catch Tashfeen Farook.
Aside from not addressing the real problems, these restrictions will harm a significant number of innocent individuals. For example, business travelers, aid workers who went to Iraq to help victims of violence, journalists covering the atrocities there — all must now seek U.S. Department of Homeland Security waivers from these restrictions.
Dual citizens are in an even more difficult position. Consider Europeans who have dual Iranian citizenship simply because Iranian citizenship is so hard to renounce. They are now expelled from the visa waiver program, even if they have next to no connection to Iran.
Of course, this blanket ban completely misses the most dangerous individuals: those who traveled to join a terrorist group in Syria or Iraq, without any intelligence agency being aware of it. Because their travel went unnoticed, they would still be allowed to use the visa waiver program or get other visas for that matter.
The Heritage Foundation warned multiple times that other countries could retaliate and limit U.S. citizens from traveling abroad without a visa.
On cue, the EU has announced it will consider suspending visa-free travel for all American citizens unless the U.S. lifts or alters the visa waiver program restrictions by April. While the ban is not a sure thing, the very fact that the EU is considering it should grab lawmakers’ attention.
The visa waiver program provides security, trade, travel and diplomatic benefits for all participating countries. Those benefits are now at risk. While there is always room for improvement in any program, Congress should make changes that actually improve the benefits to the U.S. This includes judiciously expanding the visa waiver program to gain from even more information sharing, more airport security abroad, and more visa-free travel.
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