As President Obama moves forward with his strategy of air strikes to try and ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS forces, Congress is beginning to raise more questions. A number of Republican lawmakers have suggested that there is a big hole in terms of keeping our country safe and secure against potential terror threats.
That hole is the US Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of a number of other so-called ‘friendly’ countries to be able to enter the United States without specifically needing to get a visa. The problem, these lawmakers say, is that terrorist sympathizers can simply board a plane and enter the country, where they could then plan and conduct any number of attacks against any number of targets.
Lawmakers are also urging Obama to consider taking additional steps to stop militant fighters from coming to this country. According to a report in the Washington Times, they want the President to consider taking passports away from Americans who have been confirmed to have joined ISIS (or other terror groups).
Congress is also urging the President to suspend certain countries from the Visa Waiver Program. These would be countries that have large numbers of their citizens joining ISIS in order to fight with them. In fact, a June report by the Soufan Group has shown that more than half of the countries on our Visa Waiver Program list have had citizens join the fight in either Syria or Iraq. This is a problem, because these Western fighters could then return to their own countries and the US, even bypassing the initial level of scrutiny…all without even having to obtain a visa.
The US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is run by the Department of Homeland Security and is designed to make it easier for citizens of certain foreign countries to travel to the US for tourism or business without obtaining a visa. In most cases, visitors are allowed to remain in the country for up to 90 days. The program applies to all the 50 US states and the territories including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
Most of the countries included in the VWP are considered to be high income economies and rank very highly on the Human Development Index. Citizens of 38 different countries are eligible for this type of favorable travel treatment under this program. This includes Andorra, Estonia, Italy, Monaco, Slovenia,Australia, Finland, Japan, Netherlands, Spain,Austria, France, South Korea, New Zealand, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Latvia, Norway, Switzerland, Brunei, Greece, Liechtenstein, Portugal, Taiwan, Chile, Hungary, Lithuania, San Marino, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Iceland, Luxembourg, Singapore, Denmark, Ireland, Malta, Slovakia.
This program has been around since 1986, when Congress first passed legislation creating the VWP. The idea was to facilitate tourism and allow the consular resources of the US Department of State (Homeland Security now falls within the State Department) to be used more effectively. In July 1988, the UK became the first country to participate along with Japan in December of the same year. Since this time, the program has steadily expanded to include most European countries and a number of others. Entry requirements were tightened after the attacks of September 11, 2001 including the requirement of visitors to supply a machine readable passport when entering the country.
Many of these countries do reciprocate. In other words, US citizens would not need visas to visit places like the UK and New Zealand. Some also have their own actual VWP, although this will vary according to the country. Citizens of the United States are actually able to use their passports to enter 174 different countries.
The real question here is whether or not the VWP should be reconsidered. The Republicans are absolutely correct in pointing out that nearly anyone from one of these 38 nations could go to the Middle East, fight for ISIS and then end up on a plane bound for the US. Without needing to obtain a visa, entry would be easy. From there, they would pretty much be free to either conduct ‘lone wolf’ types of terror attacks or even join together with others and conduct more organized attacks on behalf of radical Islam. Another reason for reconsidering this program is the fact that acts of terror could also be conducted on the planes themselves.
The main argument for leaving the VWP in place is that most of these nations are our allies and revoking it could cause political fallout. Maybe several nations would revoke the ability of US citizens to travel to their countries in a visa-free fashion. Then so be it; these are steps we need to take in order to protect our nation from potential terrorist attacks.
In the final analysis, the VWP should be reconsidered. It simply makes things too easy for potential terrorists to enter the US. Obama is certainly not going to close our southern border, which means air travel must be seriously considered and we should do what we can to defend ourselves.