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U.S. tightens visa waiver program for 38 countries

WASHINGTON – Dec. 1, 2015 – The United States will begin screening passengers entering under a visa waiver, based on any past travel to a country known as a terrorist safe haven, the Obama administration announced Monday.

The new policy was one of several changes announced to the visa waiver program in the wake of terrorist attacks Nov. 13 in Paris.

Though President Obama has resisted efforts to impose restrictions on refugees from Syria, he has indicated a willingness to work with Congress to change the visa waiver program that allows 20 million visitors into the USA each year. The program allows passengers from 38 countries – mostly European but also Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – to visit the USA without advance approval for 90 days or less.

The White House announced Monday that it asked for a review of whether those 38 counties were cooperating with security reviews.

The United States will expand the use of fingerprints and photographs to identify passengers and update its databases to include any past travel to a country considered a terrorist safe haven. Such countries include Somalia, Mali, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia and Venezuela, according to the State Department.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the visa waiver changes would “enhance our security without undermining the international connections that are critical to the strength of our economy.”

Earnest said Obama named Rob Malley, a National Security Council official, as a senior adviser on the Islamic State. Earnest urged Congress to confirm the Treasury Department’s top counterterrorism official and update the legal authority to use military force against terrorist groups. He put the visa waiver issue in the context of a broader battle between Obama and Congress.

“For too long, Capitol Hill has been a source of politically motivated posturing, but few, if any, tangible improvements to our national security. That’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it falls far short of what the American people deserve,” Earnest said.

Congress was considering legislative changes in the visa waiver program as early as September, when a House Homeland Security Committee task force recommended updating passports to include identifying information embedded in a microchip. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Monday he expects the House to vote on a visa waiver bill by the end of the year.

Copyright © 2015, USATODAY.com, USA TODAY, Gregory Korte. Contributing: Paul Singer and Bart Jansen in Washington

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