Big Changes to the Visa Waiver Program Could Effect Many People Who Won’t Know it Until its Too Late.

Congress recently passed legislation that changes who is eligible to enter the United States through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). These changes are in reaction to the fears that terrorists and terrorist sympathizers will enter the United States exploiting the ease by which people can enter through the VWP.

The Visa Waiver Program was designed to allow citizens of certain countries to avoid the lengthy process by which most foreign nationals must apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate abroad. The normal process involves an application, a background check, an interview and sometimes more. Applications for short-term visitor or business visas are routinely denied. The Visa Waiver Program allows qualified citizens from 38 countries to avoid this process and with a quick online registration, obtain an electronic visa and admission into the United States for 90 days at a time.

This list of 38 countries changes often and usually only contains first-world countries that have low rates of people overstaying their visas, claiming asylum or otherwise abusing the visa process. Citizens from all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand and parts of East Asia enjoy the use of Visa Waiver admissions.

Recently, a fear has developed that people holding passports from one of these 38 countries may be terrorists, sympathizers or have traveled to the Middle East for military training or Jihadist radicalization. The fear is that those individuals would then use their special admission rights under the VWP to enter the U.S. with much less scrutiny then through the normal visa process and then engage in acts of terrorism.

In an attempt to avoid this, Congress passed new restrictions on who can use the VWP to obtain entry into the U.S.

Effective December 18, 2015:

1. Individuals who have been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan (or other countries designated by DHS as supporting terrorism or “of concern”) at any time on or after March 1, 2011, are not eligible to participate in the VWP. The new law exempts those performing military service in the armed forces of a VWP country or those carrying out official duties in a full-time capacity in the employment of a VWP country government. In addition, DHS may waive exclusion from the VWP program if it would be in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States.
2. The new law also excludes from the VWP individuals who are nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan. Nationality typically depends on the laws of the designated country, so it is important to note that an individual may be a national of a particular country, even if he or she has never resided in that country and/or does not have a passport issued by that country.

This change can greatly effect anyone who may have traveled to one of these countries of concern, even if that person is not from that country, never lived there, has no ties to that country and was only going there for official commercial business. In addition, the travel restriction date is retroaction, so if you traveled to one of those countries, even four years ago, but have not been back since, you could be barred from using the VWP.

If you use the Visa Wavier Program to enter the United States, and you are concerned about your eligibility to continue to use the Program, call a qualified immigration attorney today.

John Gihon is a Florida Bar Board Certified expert in Immigration and Nationality Law and a Crimmigration Consultant. You can contact John If you need an Orlando Immigration Attorney or legal advice about the Visa Waiver Program, no matter where you live in the World.

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