US Congress reins in visa-free travel

US Congress reins in visa-free travel
PHOTO: Reuters

Washington - The US Congress struck a huge spending deal overnight including a measure that will tighten the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) by excluding certain travelers deemed by Washington to be a risk.

Republican and Democratic negotiators included the measure in a catchall spending package agreed to late Tuesday and unveiled in the dead of night that sets federal expenditures at US$1.149 billion through September 30, 2016, the end of the fiscal year.

The text, which is expected to be voted on by Thursday, includes the legislation adopted by the House of Representatives last week which excludes citizens from VWP countries who are also dual nationals from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.

It would also exclude anyone from the 38 participating nations - including 30 in Europe - who has travelled to those four countries, or to a country Washington has listed as supporting terrorism, since March 2011.

Such foreign nationals will not be barred from travelling to the United States, but they will be required to obtain a visa prior to their visit through standard means, which includes a face-to-face interview at a US consulate.

About 20 million people each year come to the United States without a visa for stays of less than 90 days, including about 13 million Europeans.

European diplomats, led by European Union ambassador to Washington David O'Sullivan, have warned of potential retaliation against the United States, arguing the programme is based on reciprocity.

Non-profit groups have called the measure discriminatory since it punishes certain European citizens based on their national origin from Muslim-majority countries.

"Once again, members of Congress are using the government funding bill to pursue their extremist agendas," said Anthony Romero, executive director of civil liberties group ACLU.

"Sneaking damaging and discriminatory riders into a must-pass bill usurps the democratic process and is irresponsible." Some US lawmakers had sought to kill or amend the measure, expressing concerns that European nations would offer reciprocal treatment against US travelers.

But supporters of the measure in Congress argued it is vital to tighten the programme in the wake of deadly terror strikes in Paris, where some of the attackers were French and Belgian nationals who likely could have boarded a plane to the United States without a visa.


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