WASHINGTON - The United States tightened its visa waiver program Monday in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, adding new screening for travelers headed to the U.S. from 38 countries around the world who now are allowed to enter the country without a visa.
The White House said the country's homeland security agency is immediately altering its electronic visa-free clearance system to capture information on whether U.S.-bound travelers have made any trips to countries the United States considers to be a "terrorist safe haven."
In addition, Washington said it is considering pilot programs to add the use of biometric screening for travelers, such as taking their fingerprints or photographs, to the monitoring process before passengers are allowed to board flights headed to the United States.
Each year, 20 million foreign visitors head to the U.S. from the 38 countries the U.S. has partnered with in the visa-free program. The White House said authorities have repeatedly increased their scrutiny of U.S.-bound travelers in recent years and are tightening them even more "given the terrorist attacks in Paris and the ongoing threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters."
The White House said it is seeking quick congressional approval for some of the new security measures, including an increase in fines, from $5,000 to $50,000, against airlines that fail to verify a traveler's passport data. The U.S. is also looking to increase information sharing about possible terrorists among the 38 countries and the international police agency Interpol, and to better track lost and stolen travel documents.
It also called for quicker adoption of so-called e-passports, passports with embedded security chips.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that in addition to giving legal sanction to the new security measures, Congress by the end of the year should approve a ban on gun sales to anyone on the U.S. no-fly list.
The majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, said lawmakers are aiming to approve an overhaul of the visa-free travel program by year's end, although details of the legislation have yet to be worked out.