National News

Trump Administration Adds Restrictions for Visa-Waiver Countries

Posted December 15, 2017 2:53 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Dozens of countries, mostly in Europe, must meet additional security requirements for their citizens to continue to be allowed into the United States without a visa, the Department of Homeland Security said Friday.

The countries must begin sharing additional background information and establish effective safeguards against threats by foreign airport workers. Some will also be required to start a public-relations campaign to discourage their citizens from overstaying their visits.

Homeland security officials said the new measures did not come as a result of a specific threat but part of a continuous review of national security measures to protect the United States from terrorist attacks.

About 38 countries participate in the visa-waiver program, including Britain, France, Germany, South Korea and Australia. The program allows their citizens to visit the United States without a visa on trips of 90 days or less, and about 20 million tourists use it each year.

No timeline has been set for countries to carry out the changes, and officials did not say how countries would be punished if they failed to put the changes into effect. The secretary of homeland security has the authority to remove countries from the visa-waiver program.

An estimated 629,000 visitors — a little more than 1 percent of all travelers — remained in the United States at the end of last year after overstaying their visas as students, workers or tourists, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Although the figure represents a small portion of the estimated 20 million visitors to the country, Homeland Security officials say the failure of some people to leave when their visas lapse presents a national security risk. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Satam al-Suqami and Nawaq Alhazmi, overstayed their visas.

Only countries that have overstay rates of 2 percent or more will be required to begin an education campaign. Four meet that threshold: Hungary, Greece, Portugal and San Marino, a tiny country surrounded by Italy.

The Department of Homeland Security has struggled to document visa overstays. A report in May by its inspector general found that the agency could not account for all of them in data it reports to Congress.

Lawmakers and intelligence and law enforcement officials said that while the visa-waiver program has proved to be secure, they still worried that some of the travelers who could pose a security threat might overstay their visits.