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U.S. rolls out tighter Visa Waiver Program rules in wake of terror attacks

January 23, 2016 at 5:20 PM EST
As more radicalized foreigners join ISIS militants, U.S. officials this week tightened the Visa Waiver Program, which allows visitors from 38 countries to enter the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. This week, anyone from a Visa Waiver country who also has dual citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan was forbidden from entering the U.S. visa-free. The Washington Post's Karoun Demirjian joins Alison Stewart to discuss.
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ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The visa waiver program allows visitors to the United States from 38 countries, mostly in Europe, to enter and stay in the U.S. for 90 days without a visa or interview overseas. About 20 million travelers come to the U.S. this way every year. But the growth of radicalized foreign fighters who have joined forces with Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria and then return to Europe has led U.S. officials to tighten the program.

This week, the Obama administration began enforcing a law passed by Congress last month that prevents anyone from a visa waiver country who has dual citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan from visiting the U.S. visa-free.

For more on these new security measures, I am joined by “Washington Post” reporter Karoun Demirjian.

Karoun, I have a question for you. What was the initial catalyst for this change and what flaw was exposed that needed to be fixed?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, THE WASHINGTON POST: A lot of people in Congress had been looking at the visa waiver program for a while, but the thing that brought it all together was the terror attacks in Paris and then in San Bernardino. And you had a lot of members saying, OK, we really need to look at this very closely.

The first measure that Congress started to look at was Syrian Iraqi refugee resettlements and then people said, no, the visa waiver program was a bigger concern so many people do use it to come to the United States and because a large percentage of the foreign fighters who have joined a lot of these extremist groups do have European passports.

And so, what they settled on in this bill was this measure which is that if you have traveled to Iraq, Sudan, Syria, or Iran since the beginning of March in 2011 – that’s the date that the Syrian civil war started – or if you’re a dual national, which means you hold, you know, European passport or a visa-waiver country eligible passport, but also a passport from that country, citizenship there, you can’t come to the U.S. under the reduced, expedited procedures under the visa waiver program. You have to go through the regular screening that involves an in-person interview at an embassy or a consulate.

ALISON STEWART: How does this affect people like journalists, NGOs or charity workers who are going to countries to try to help people?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: There was always a provision in that law, in the bill and the law, that said that the government can choose to waive the restrictions when it’s in the interest of law enforcement or national security of the United States.

And so the rules that the administration said they were going to implement this week, they actually cited many of those categories, that if you are a journalist, if are you working for an international NGO or a legitimate government or if you had a legitimate business interest in Iraq or in Iran since the nuclear pact was signed, you can petition for a waiver, and those waivers will be available.

ALISON STEWART: Can there be an argument made that this is an overreaction or an overcorrection?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: People have made that argument. I mean, the program — the changes were very popular. They got a lot of bipartisan support when they were there for straight, you know, up-or-down vote in the House of Representatives and then, of course, it passed as part of the bigger budget bill. As much as there are people who want to pull this back and say let’s look at the program again, maybe do even more measures on the — you know, in the other capacities where it has to do with security, sharing of information, and screening that isn’t in a way that’s going to be blocking people out by category.

There’s certainly discussion about wanting to do that, but there’s nothing that’s been scheduled to actually go ahead and revisit what they just passed.

ALISON STEWART: Karoun Demirjian from “The Washington Post” — thanks so much.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Thank you.

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