Even before the murderous rampage by Islamist extremists in Paris this month, some members of Congress were sounding alarm bells about Islamic State militants using Western passports to enter the United States. Now they may be even more tempted to undermine, suspend or end the visa waiver program that allows nationals of 38 countries to travel to the United States without a temporary visitor’s visa.
“The visa waiver program is the Achilles’ heel of America,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said last week. Terrorists can “come back from training, they go through a visa waiver country, and they come into this country.”
Congress shouldn’t act based on this sort of overstatement.
The visa waiver program allows people from countries including the United Kingdom, Japan, the Czech Republic, Singapore and, yes, France to skip otherwise required pre-visit interviews at U.S. embassies and consulates. It takes a lot less time and money for foreigners in visa waiver countries to visit the United States. About 19 million people from such countries visited the United States in fiscal year 2012 – that’s 40 percent of all international visitors. What’s more, their home countries can’t demand expensive or time-consuming visa procedures of Americans.
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Against those benefits lies the fear that visa waivers might allow the wrong one or two people into the country. But the program isn’t about letting America’s guard down. It demands that visa waiver nations take several security-enhancing steps. Using secure electronic passports, for example, scales back the risk of fraud, as does promptly reporting lost or stolen travel documents. The visa waiver program, in other words, has compelled other countries to improve their security game.
But the nation’s no-fly list system is a much more important line of defense. U.S. leaders should worry more about keeping it up to date and refrain from scaling back the waiver program.