Visa Waivers: More Harm Than Good?

David J Puentes – Many are aware that the perpetrators of the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks were foreigners. Less may be aware that they were in the United States as the beneficiaries of a variety of non-immigrant visas. These attacks led to the consolidation of various different Federal departments and agencies into the Department of Homeland Security.

A direct result of these terrorist attacks was also the implementation of policies and an increase in enforcement of policies involving the screening of individuals traveling into the United States and immigrants. Some would argue that restrictions in the area of immigration enforcement still has gaping holes, however. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, believes one such hole is the United States’ visa waiver program.

In order to travel to the United States, a foreign national must typically obtain a visa. To do so, one would have to complete a nonimmigrant visa application, Form DS-160, pay a fee, and attend an interview. The kinds of visas available, the length of duration, and other visa-related information comes from the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The visa waiver program, which is operated by the Department of Homeland Security, permits the citizens of 38 participating countries to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less. One concern expressed by some legislators is that recent events have shown citizens of some of these countries going to other countries to train in the paramilitary techniques of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and then going back to their country to commit acts of terror.

The problem with this is that these individuals retain their citizenship in their country of origin. As of late, it has not been so simple as to claim that we should be particularly careful of individuals entering our country with Afghani or Syrian passports. Many of these individuals, are still citizens of visa waiver countries or are able to obtain false travel documents from those countries.

These concerns are further exacerbated by the fact that Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch recently published a guide on how to make bombs from materials that would be undetectable by most airports along with instructions on how to avoid airport security.

Others, however, point out that the visa waiver program is a valuable tool in diplomacy. Jayson Ahern, a former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (an agency within the DHS), pointed out that the 38 countries engage in information sharing with the United States. Furthermore, there are various screening methods in place to know just who is entering the United States, even as the beneficiary of the visa waiver program.

Ahern points out that “even though travelers under the visa waiver who come to the U.S. do not need visas, they still must submit data in advance of their flight that allows the intelligence agencies to flag potential threats. Ahern pointed out that DHS personnel are also stationed throughout the world conducting additional screening as people board airplanes to the U.S.”

These are all concerns that have to be weighed by the executive branch in determining how wise the program may be as well as by the legislature when it comes time to appropriate funding to the different Federal departments. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has also commented that his committee plans to launch an investigation into the security and defense gaps that may exist in the efforts to track foreign fighters.

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