DHS’ visitor screening improving, GAO official says

Foreign fighters could be a continuing problem, but DHS is tightening up screening for the Visa Waiver Program, according to the GAO.

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Despite concerns by some lawmakers that foreign terrorist fighters might slip in the United States through countries that participate in the U.S.  Visa Waiver Program, the federal watchdog said that program and others are getting better at ferreting out problems.

Fighters returning from collapsing ISIS and Al Qaida strongholds in the Middle East could enter the U.S. through the 38 countries that participate in the VWP, top Republicans warned in a May 3 House Committee on Homeland Security hearing.

However, a federal watchdog and Department of Homeland Security officials told them the VWP program is improving.

"The majority of [Paris, Brussels and Nice] attackers were European citizens with valid passports, so it is easy to imagine any one of them gaining access to this country through a valid visa or through the Visa Waiver Program," said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who chairs the committee’s Task Force on Denying Terrorists Entry to the United States. The VWP allows nationals from 38 countries to travel visa-free to the U.S. for business or pleasure for 90 days or less.  “Millions of travelers ... benefit from the exemption,” Gallagher said.

Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) also noted the continuing exodus of ISIS and Al Qaida fighters from the Middle East as they return to their home nations. However, he said the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 ramped up VWP security by bolstering intelligence information sharing and including provisions that will make it harder for terror suspects to cross borders, including enhanced screening of travelers and cracking down on passport fraud.

During the hearing, Rebecca Gambler, director of the Government Accountability Office’s Homeland Security and Justice Division, said DHS has improved VWP and other screening programs.

“We’ve seen progress and implementation in terms of DHS’ oversight of the programs," Gambler said.  However, she said, DHS and Customs and Border Protection must develop consistent metrics and baseline data to help assess the ultimate effectiveness of those screening and predeparture efforts.

Currently, according to CBP Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner, the VWP requires approval through the agency’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) system. That process, he said, checks an application against a series of law enforcement and intelligence agency databases.

Once ESTA authorizes the application form, a traveler’s booking and reservation data and the related airline flight manifests are checked against rules developed by law enforcement and immigration agencies to flag other potential concerns, he said.

Gallagher said in his opening statement, however, that more prosaic gaps remain in the overall visa process, noting that one of the 2015 San Bernadino attackers used an illegal K-1 “fiancé” visa to enter the country.

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