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After Terror Attacks, Congress Expected to Overhaul US Visa Waiver Program

  • Michael Bowman

FILE - Department of Homeland Security official (r) assist a passenger (l) as he scans his fingerprint on a machine, part of the exit process at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta.

FILE - Department of Homeland Security official (r) assist a passenger (l) as he scans his fingerprint on a machine, part of the exit process at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta.

U.S. senators welcomed an overhaul of America’s visa waiver program contained in a massive federal spending bill expected to pass both legislative houses in the coming days.

Once approved, the measures would constitute the full Congress’ first concrete steps to boost domestic security following the terrorist attacks in Paris and California.

Under the overhaul, most nationals from more than three dozen countries would retain the ability to travel to the United States without a visa. They would be excluded from the program, however, if they have traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan in the last five years.

The legislation also aims to strengthen information-sharing among governments, and empowers the Department of Homeland Security to terminate a country’s participation in the visa waiver program if its data sharing is deemed inadequate.

Changes touted as 'reasonable'

“Those are pretty reasonable changes under the circumstances,” said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. “We want to make sure that we protect the American people in every way we possibly can.”

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the changes last week. Attaching them to a massive yearlong spending bill will help speed them to President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law.

After weeks of negotiations, congressional leaders late Tuesday finalized the omnibus bill that funds federal government operations through September 30, 2016. As such, most senators had yet to read specific provisions for themselves, including visa waiver reforms.

“I haven’t seen the details, but I know that there are alterations necessary to be sure that we are fully protective of the country,” said Independent Senator Angus King.

Republican Senator John McCain told VOA that tightening visa requirements is fine as a first step.

“I’m happy with those changes, but we still have a lot of work to do to figure out how we can make sure that there is no terrorist that comes into this country,” McCain said. “We find loopholes all the time.”

“We just had an attack on the United States of America. Clearly it requires that all aspects of immigration into this country be examined,” he added.

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