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State Dept. Supports Congressional Moves to Tighten Controls on Visa-Free Travel

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks with a reporter on Capitol Hill prior to a vote on legislation tightening controls on travel to the U.S., Dec. 8, 2015.

The U.S. State Department lent support Wednesday to Congressional efforts to restrict travel to the United States by citizens of 38 countries who have traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan in the past five years.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill on Tuesday to tighten control of the so-called Visa Waiver Program, which allows travel from certain countries to the U.S. without obtaining a visa from U.S. embassies or consulates. Members of Congress say it is necessary to keep dangerous people from reaching the U.S.

“We are supportive of the bipartisan legislation that has been proposed in the House of Representatives and we hope the Congress moves swiftly to pass that legislation,” said Spokesperson John Kirby on Wednesday.

Kirby said the State Department supports working with Congress on legislation that gives security enhancement measures announced by the Department of Homeland Security “the force of law.”

In August, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced he would take steps to enhance security under the Visa Waiver Program. One of the proposals is to require travelers to the U.S. to use so-called e-passports that carry biometric information to lessen the risk of forgery.

In addition, Johnson's reforms would require the use of an INTERPOL database that tracks missing passports, to screen travellers crossing a Visa Waiver country’s border.

The House measure, if enacted, would require all 38 countries in the Visa Waiver program to issue e-passports. Under the program, travellers could stay in the U.S. for up to 90 days.

Although the impact to legitimate travellers is not known, Kirby added there ought to be a balance between security enhancement and facilitating necessary business travels.

About 20 million visitors are estimated to come to the U.S. each year under the Visa Waiver Program. Travellers are screened prior to arrival through an on-line system maintained by the Department of Homeland Security .

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