DHS to enhance current Visa Waiver Program

The Department of Homeland Security is making changes to the visa waiver program.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced that it was taking action to strengthen the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

What is the VWP? This program allows for the entry of certain individuals from 38 countries to enter the United States for tourism or business purposes without a visa. Countries that take part in this program include Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

Those who wish to participate in the VWP must have authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This is an automated system based on biographical information and a review of answers to questions regarding eligibility to the VWP. However, exceptions exist even for those who meet these qualifications. One example involves a review of previous travel. Travel to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen after March 1 of 2011 will generally result in a denial.

It is also important to note that there is a time limit for visits based on this program. VWP participants can only stay within the U.S. for 90 days or less. The United States Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs notes that the time limitation is strict. Extensions are generally not allowed.

What types of changes are in the works? Changes to the VWP are designed to better ensure those who partake in the program are in full compliance with the rules. As such, the changes focus specifically on the enforcement elements of the program.

  • Security measures. The 38 countries that qualify for the VWP must screen travelers against counterterrorism information provided by the United States. The changes also call for countries with a "two percent or greater rate of business or tourism nonimmigrant visitors overstaying the terms of their admission into the United States to initiate a public information campaign to reduce overstay violations." This would take the form of an education campaign that focuses on the conditions for admission into the U.S.
  • Call to Congress. The agency also called for Congress to codify existing requirements. The agency argues that such a move would "bolster efforts" to report foreign terrorist information, collect and analyze passenger travel data and better allow U.S. Federal Air Marshals to operate on planes that travel into the United States.

The agency states that these changes should not have an impact lawful trade and travel.

What does this mean for those who partake in the VWP? Immigrants who use or are considering use of a waiver program like the VWP should note the fact that the rules and requirements for these programs often change. The laws are not static, but evolving. As such, it is often wise to seek legal counsel when attempting to navigate these issues. An attorney experienced in these matters can provide counsel to help better ensure a favorable outcome.