The House of Representatives recently passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Prevention Act, H.R. 158, by a vote of 407-19. The bill would place additional restrictions on the Visa Waiver Program in an effort to improve domestic security.

What is the Visa Waiver Program?
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of eligible countries to enter the U.S. without first going to a U.S. consulate to obtain a visitor’s visa in one’s passport. At present, only citizens of 38 countries are eligible. Participants in the VWP can complete an online application, board a plane to the U.S., fill out an immigration card during the flight or at the point of entry, and explain the purpose of the visit to a U.S. immigration inspector upon arrival. If the inspector is satisfied with the visitor’s purpose and eligibility, the visitor will be admitted and authorized to stay for 90 days. If not, the inspector at entry can deny entry and put the visitor on the next flight home, with no right to contact an attorney or have a hearing. For this reason, it is important to understand the requirements for using the VWP.

Currently eligible applicants need:
o Valid passport from an eligible Visa Waiver Program country (see https://help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/194/~/visa-waiver-program—eligible-countries for a list of eligible countries).
o Valid credit card to pay U.S. $14 per application.
o Applicant’s contact information.
o Applicant’s most recent employment information, if applicable.

What does the H.R. 158 bill propose?
The bill is part of lawmakers’ efforts to improve domestic security by excluding anyone who travelled to countries alleged to be supporting terrorism within the past five years or who is a “national” of Iraq or Syria or any other country designated to “repeatedly provide support of acts of international terrorism” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security. The bill provides a provision that allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive the exclusion if the waiver is in the interest of law enforcement or national security. It provides no such waiver for those in a humanitarian capacity. H.R. 158 would also establish additional reporting requirements to Congress regarding use of the program, additional eligibility requirements for VWP countries, and enhancements to the online registration system, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) expressed concerns regarding H.R. 158, and recommended Congress vote “NO” on the bill unless modifications and clarifications are made. AILA and other advocacy groups urge Congress to pass legislation consistent with U.S. values as a nation, and one “crafted in a way that is workable, sensible, and based on good policy”. See AILA’s comments at: http://www.aila.org/advo-media/press-releases/2015/concerns-visa-waiver-program-improvement-hr-158

Trow & Rahal will closely monitor any and all changes in the VWP. Please check our website and blog entries to stay up-to-date on VWP changes.

Posted by: Holly Hatton