On Tuesday, December 8, 2015, the House will consider H.R. 158, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015, as amended, under suspension of the rules. H.R. 158 was introduced on January 6, 2015 by Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) and was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, and in addition, to the Committee on Homeland Security. The Homeland Security Committee ordered the bill reported, as amended, by voice vote, on June 25, 2015.
H.R. 158 includes provisions to strengthen the security of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to better ensure that individuals entering the United States through the program are not security risks, while maintaining the program’s ability to facilitate legitimate foreign business travel and tourism to our country.
Specifically, the bill:
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) “allows nationals from certain countries, many of which are in Europe, to enter the United States as temporary visitors (for up to 90 days) for business or pleasure (tourism) without first obtaining a visa from a U.S. consulate abroad.” Those entering through the program are required to present a valid passport and meet certain other requirements including an online security screening prior to travel. Temporary visitors from non-VWP countries must obtain a visa from U.S. Department of State officers at a consular office abroad before entering the United States.
Countries must meet certain criteria to qualify for the program, such as: offering reciprocal privileges to citizens of the United States; having had a nonimmigrant refusal rate of less than 3% for the previous year; issuing machine-readable passports and tamper-resistant visa documents with biometric identifiers; sharing information about the theft or loss of passports; accepting the timely repatriation of citizens and nationals for whom a final order of removal has been issued; sharing information regarding nationals traveling to the U.S. who may be security threats; and, it must be determined by the Departments of Homeland Security and State that the country’s inclusion does not compromise the law enforcement or security interests of the United States.
The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (H.R. 1), which passed the House by a vote of 371 to 40 on July 27, 2007, required the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop and implement an electronic travel authorization system through which each alien electronically provides, in advance of travel, certain biographical information necessary to determine whether the alien is eligible to travel to the United States and enter under the VWP. The system, known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), became fully operational for all VWP visitors traveling to the United States by airplane or cruise ship on January 12, 2009.
Before departing for the United States, aliens must provide certain information electronically through ESTA to determine eligibility to travel to the United States under the VWP. This information includes: biographical information, (name, birth date, country of citizenship, other citizenships, country of residence, telephone number, other names/aliases, parents’ names, national identification number, employment information, and city of birth); passport information (passport number, issuing country, issuance date, and expiration date); and, travel information (departure city, flight number, U.S. contact information, and address while in the United States). The eligibility to travel to the U.S. is valid for two years or until the individual’s passport expires, is valid for multiple entries, and can be revoked at any time.
However, while robust background security checks are required, unlike other nonimmigrants to the United States, those entering under VWP are not subject to the same pre-travel screening required of other temporary visitors and “do not have to get a visa and thus, have no contact with U.S. governmental officials until they arrive at a port of entry and are inspected by CBP officers.” Additionally, according to the Committee on Homeland Security, not all VWP countries share security or counterterrorism information with the U.S. regularly or expeditiously, screen travelers against security databases that could identify travelers who should be prevented from travel due to criminal, security, or terrorism concerns, or regularly check travel documents for fraud.
H.R. 158 is designed to help ensure that individuals traveling to the United States under the VWP are eligible to do so and do not present a security or terrorism threat. According to the bill sponsor, this legislation “empowers DHS by giving it the authority to suspend a country’s participation in the program if it fails to provide us with the pertinent information needed to stop terrorists from entering the United States [and] strengthens our counterterrorism efforts by codifying the Department’s newly adopted practice of collecting additional biographical data during the application process.”
For more information, click here for background on the Visa Waiver Program and for a summary of H.R. 158, provided by the Committee on Homeland Security.
 As of November 2015, VWP countries include: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
 See CRS Report—“Visa Waiver Program,” November 20, 2015 at 1.
 Id. at 3.
 Id. at 5.
 Id. at 6.
 Id. at 7.
 See Committee on Homeland Security document—“Background: Visa Waiver Program and Existing Security Gaps”
 See Press Release—“Miller: House Visa Waiver Legislation Will Help DHS Stop Terrorists from Traveling to U.S.,” November 20, 2015.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that implementing H.R. 158 would result in a loss of revenue of about $1 million per year over the 2016 to 2020 period, or $5 million over that five year period, because of anticipated lower usage of the Visa Waiver Program.
For questions or further information please contact Jerry White with the House Republican Policy Committee by email or at 5-0190.