Amid rising fears of the potential for a terrorist attack on the US homeland, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) today announced the addition of Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the list of countries ineligible to use the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for travel to the United States.
Last month, the United States began implementing changes under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. Travelers from those regions labeled “countries of concern” can no longer travel to the US under the VWP.
The VWP is administered by DHS and enables eligible citizens or nationals of designated countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa. The program constitutes one of a few exceptions under the Immigration and Nationality Act in which foreign nationals are admitted into the United States without a valid visa.
According to DHS, the addition of these three countries is indicative of the Department’s commitment to curbing the growing threat of foreign fighters. Some lawmakers have expressed concern that the VWP serves as a gateway for foreign fighters returning to the US to conduct an attack on the homeland.
The new additions join Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria as countries subject to VWP travel restrictions.
There are some exceptions. Categories of travelers who may be eligible for a waiver include individuals who traveled to these countries on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations, and sub-national governments on official duty; on behalf of a humanitarian non-governmental organization on official duty; or as a journalist for reporting purposes.
Individuals who do not fall under these exceptions may still travel to the US by following the regular process for obtaining a visa.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) commended Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on the announcement, saying, “It is vitally important that individuals who have recently traveled to these terrorist hotspots are not eligible to enter the United States visa-free. Instead, they must go through additional screening which will help us ensure that terrorists do not exploit the travel system to infiltrate our country. I also urge the Administration to remain vigilant in monitoring the evolving terror threat to the homeland – so that emerging terrorist safe havens can be added, as need.”
McCaul added, “Despite these positive steps, I still have grave concerns that the Administration is not implementing this law as Congress intended and plans to waive important security screening requirements to appease countries like Iran. The President must faithfully adhere to the law—it’s his duty to the Constitution and to ensure the security of the American people.”
Shortly before the announcement of the new restrictions, McCaul and several other lawmakers sent a letter to Johnson urging him to consider restricting travel for visitors from Libya in order to prevent the Islamic State from using the country as a base from which to attack the US.
“While we urge you to consider whether each of the countries where ISIL now has a presence should be added to the list that Congress included in the law, the case for adding Libya is clear,” the letter stated. “We have already seen ISIL use Libya as a base from which to launch terrorist attacks. Last year the group struck twice in neighboring Tunisia, killing 20 foreign nationals at the Bardo Museum and 38 tourists at a seaside resort.”
The new VWP restrictions are the latest in a number of security enhancements to theVWP initiated by DHS to facilitate travel while maintaining security. Over the summer, Johnson announced a number of additional or revised security criteria for all participants—both current and new members— in the VWP.
The new criteria included the required use of e-passports for all VWP travelers coming to the US; required use of the INTERPOL Lost and Stolen Passport Database to screen travelers crossing a VWP country’s borders; and permission for the expanded use of US federal air marshals on international flights from VWP countries to the US.
Commenting on the latest precautions, Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) stated,“I support this expansion announced by the Department of Homeland Security, designating Libya, Somalia, and Yemen as countries of concern whose citizens will undergo additional screening prior to entering the US. This expansion is a prudent measure expressly authorized under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Protection Act so that DHS has the ability to adapt to the ever-changing threat of global terror.”