Sunday

19th Jan 2020

EU states could lose US visa waivers

  • Airport queue: US debate began after Charlie Hebdo murders in January (Photo: The Hamster Factor)

US lawmakers are preparing to vote, this week, on a bill that could see select EU states lose visa waiver perks if they don’t comply with stricter security measures.

Candice Miller, a Republican congresswoman, formally introduced the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 last Thursday (3 December).

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can already suspend visa privileges for countries deemed an “imminent national security threat.”

The bill would require suspension if states don’t “continually share terrorism and foreign traveler data” with the US, if they don’t report lost or stolen passports within 24 hours, and if they don’t screen “all air passengers” through the databases of Interpol, the international police body.

It requires all visa waiver countries to use electronic passports with biometric chips by 1 April 2016.

It also calls on the DHS to file a report, within 30 days, to identify “high risk” waiver states with a view to suspension.

“The fact is, as evidenced by the horrific attacks in Paris, terrorist organisations like ISIS [Islamic State] are looking for any and every opportunity to exploit a nation’s hospitality,” Miller said.

Michael McCaul, the homeland security committee chairman, noted: “We know that several of the ISIS attackers in Paris had Western passports, meaning they could have entered the United States without a visa. That’s what this bill is designed to stop.”

Kevin McCarthy, a senior Republican lawmaker, said Miller’s bill has “strong bipartisan support” and is likely to be voted either on Thursday or Friday.

Paris aside, the bill also comes after Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, shot dead 14 people in San Bernardino, California, last Wednesday.

US president Barack Obama, at the weekend, said the attack was an Islamic State-inspired act of “terrorism.”

“I’ve ordered the departments of State and Homeland Security to review the visa waiver programme under which the female terrorist in San Bernardino originally came to this country,” he said on national TV.

His office later corrected the statement to note Malik in fact entered the US on a “K-1” fiance visa.

Charlie Hebdo

The US visa debate began after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January, when Dianne Feinstein, a prominent senator from the ruling Democratic Party, described visa waivers as “the Achilles’ heel of America.”

The DHS at the time told EUobserver it wants to see more checks on the EU’s internal “Schengen” borders and better intelligence sharing between EU states.

It noted there are 5,000 “foreign fighters” in Europe. Most of them hold French passports. But the highest concentration per capita is in some districts in and around Brussels, the Belgian and EU capital.

For their part, EU interior ministers, last Friday, agreed to share details of air passengers’ data for counter-terrorism purposes, in the so-called Passenger Name Record (PNR) law.

But the measure must still get through the European Parliament.

The EU and US are also in talks on a new Safe Harbour pact, which governs how EU firms share data with US security services. But the climate around EU-US security cooperation has been harmed by revelations of US mass snooping on EU nationals.

Symbolism

The US waiver programme, launched in 1986, covers 38 countries, including 23 EU states, with Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania left out.

Eligible travellers have to file online questionnaires about their trip. But they are free from other burdens, such as attending face-to-face interviews at US consulates, in a scheme that makes life easier for businessmen and that has symbolic value for US relations with allies.

"We want to make sure these reforms [Miller’s bill] are not so onerous they inhibit our participation in the international economy. But, of course, our national security interests come first," the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said last week.

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