WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Thursday announced changes to a visa-waiver program that would make it harder for travellers to enter the United States from Europe if they had dual citizenship from Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, or had visited one of those countries in the last five years.
Those travellers will now have to go through the more rigorous regular visa application process to enter the country. The Department of Homeland Security, which announced the changes, said they would take place immediately.
The administration’s plan would provide limited exemptions for individuals who have to travel to any of the four countries as diplomats or for military service. Additional exemptions could be applied for humanitarian reasons or for journalists.
About 38 countries, mostly in Europe, participate in the visa-waiver program, which allows their citizens to visit the United States without a visa on trips of 90 days or less. About 20 million tourists use the program each year.
The changes to the visa-waiver program come after the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people and injured 368. Because the attackers were all European citizens, some lawmakers and counterterrorism officials feared that terrorists could exploit the visa-waiver program and travel to the United States to commit similar attacks.
Many members of Congress also worried that some of the travellers who could pose a security threat might overstay their visits. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Satam al-Suqami and Nawaf Alhazmi, overstayed their visas.
But a report released Wednesday by the Department of Homeland Security, which lawmakers have been demanding for nearly 20 years, showed that the number of overstays — about a half-million in all — was slightly higher for citizens of countries where a visa is required to visit the United States than for those from countries like France and Germany, which are exempt under a visa-waiver program.
Tourists traveling to the United States
Tourists traveling to the United States under the visa-waiver program are routinely screened against intelligence databases to check for links to terrorism or for other security risks, but these checks are less restrictive than those made on travellers who must obtain a visa.
Mr. Verdery said the requirements that foreign travellers with dual citizenship go through additional steps to come to the United States would be an inconvenience, but a minor one.
“They would just have to go through the additional steps of getting and paying for a visa,” he said. “This will only affect a small percentage of people. Besides, the visa-waiver program is a privilege, not a right.”
The tourism industry said the changes to the visa-waiver program announced by the administration struck the right balance between security and legitimate travel.