Concerned that foreign militants could easily enter the United States, security is being increased on a program that allows visitors from 38 countries to enter the country without a visa. The visa waiver program, run by the United States Department of Homeland Security, makes it simple for people from these countries to enter the U.S. for a period of 90 days for business or travel.
The program has been touted as a means to foster business and cultural ties between the U.S. and the countries on the list, which includes a number of nations in Europe. The United States government has become increasingly concerned over possible infiltration by militant fighters out of these countries, which includes the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
An estimate made earlier this year by the United States intelligence community found that about 3,400 western foreign fighters have gone to the Syria-Iraq region, according to Reuters. The newswire agency notes that the total number of foreign fighters who have gone to the region since 2011 is as high as 20,000.
Some U.S. lawmakers have long been concerned that radicalized westerners who have traveled to that region could then enter the United States to attack Americans. U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein has been one of the most vocal advocates of tightening the visa waiver program. She heads the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Changes intended to protect the United States from possible militants include more air marshals on flights from the countries in the visa waiver program. Travelers will also have to use e-passports, and the INTERPOL Lost and Stolen Passport Database will be used to screen people.
The intelligence community in the United States has long said they are able to effectively track suspected militants, but that other countries could be contributing more information and acting as gatekeepers, according to the New York Times.
Various changes have been made to increase security over the last year as part of an overhaul on the program to allay security fears as ISIS increases its presence in Syria and Iraq. Concerns in the United States and Europe have been heightened by high-profile stories in the news of so-called “brides of ISIS” who leave European countries to travel to Iraq and Syria and marry ISIS fighters.
Homeland Security officials consider radicalized militants and the presence of ISIS in the Middle East and elsewhere to constitute a global threat.
The changes by the United States to the visa waiver program are not expected to impact trade or relations with the countries on the list.
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