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Publish Date: 
Monday, October 6, 2014
Roll Call

The conservative Heritage Foundation is concerned that, in the face of the threat of jihadist passport holders who are able to come to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, some members of Congress might try to curtail the program.

A Heritage event Monday made the argument that scrutiny of prospective visitors from the 38 visa waiver countries is often tighter than in the traditional face-to face interview required to obtain a visa.

The list of visa waiver countries, which includes most European countries, is here.

Those seeking to come to the United States under the program must enter their information in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which allows U.S. officials to run checks against terrorist databases.

Stewart Baker, former Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security, explained at the Heritage event that the countries now in the VWP “provide us with information that was never available before, because we used the leverage of possibly withdrawing, in whole or in part, VWP status” to get the partner countries to turn over their own criminal records and other data on their citizens.

“If the choice is between having good cooperation from the intelligence services and interior ministry of a country, so they’re actually telling you who they’re worried about — and they know more about who is dangerous in their country than we do — if the choice is between that and being able to do interviews [with prospective visitors] I’d take the data cooperation every time,” he said.

Baker said suspending the VWP and going back to the traditional visa interviews done by U.S. embassy consular officers isn’t a viable option: “I won’t say the State Department is not in the 21st century, but they are struggling to provide the kind of background checks that are necessary.”

At some overseas airports, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has set up pre-clearance stations, which allow CBP officials to do interviews with VWP travelers.

“We’re able to have trained officers look face-to-face and examine people” who want to come to the U.S. to determine whether their behavior “suggests questionable activity. That is an extra level of protection for us, it also a convenience for the traveler,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Heritage audience.

But not every traveler in the VWP goes through this pre-clearance and Chertoff said, “we don’t have the money, frankly and the capability to really go to pre-clearance in all the visa waiver countries.”

For more on Chertoff’s remarks at the Heritage event, check out Jennifer Scholtes’ story for (subscription required).