Senators seek answers about data gaps in visa waiver program

visa round table

(Photo by Aisha Chowdhry)

Concerned lawmakers questioned officials about possible holes in the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa.

In the wake of last month's attacks in Paris, many lawmakers are worried that the program could allow individuals who have participated in covert travel for the purposes of terrorist training to enter the U.S.  

At a roundtable discussion convened by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, senators wanted to know how much appropriate information is being shared by countries that participate in it.

Committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told FCW, "I'm a supporter of the visa waiver program from the standpoint of enhanced security. Once you have those databases, you can continue to enhance those."

"That’s the beauty of technology, you can add to it," he added. Johnson has backed legislation to require more data collection under the program, and he'd like to see the measure included in the pending omnibus appropriations bill.

Johnson's bill would deny VWP status to anyone who has connections to terrorist hotspots.  It would also boost intelligence and law enforcement information sharing, provide for enhanced screening of travelers and update methods to detect fraudulent documents.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) asked the panelists how confident officials were that the 38 participating countries are sharing all the appropriate information -- and whether, if any country does not cooperate, they should be kicked off the program.

Steptoe & Johnson Senior Director Marc E. Frey, a former director of the Visa Waiver Program at the Department of Homeland Security, said the waiver program is "misunderstood."

"Our vetting is only as good to a certain extend as the information we receive from our partners," he noted. Since the participating countries are good allies to the United States, however, Frey said he was confident they would work on closing any gaps: "The program is designed to be collaborative. So, termination should be the last option."

"It is a security-enhancing program," Frey told FCW after the discussion. He said that collaborating with allies who are on this program is vital, but acknowledged  that discussions with Congress are important as well.

"This is not a new exercise and it is something that is right to go on as needed in light of the current threat environment," he said.

The ranking member of the committee, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), told FCW the threats the U.S. faces right now are "real," and that as newer threats emerge, "our ability to fend them off needs to improve."

Carper said the 30-year-old program was initially created to encourage people to travel, but over time it had evolved into an information sharing program. "We've made even in the last year three significant changes, made it more robust," he said. "It’s a dangerous world we live in. …we just need to change our defenses as we go along and that’s what we are doing."

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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