Travel group to feds: Address visa overstays before restricting tourism

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The U.S. Travel Association is urging the Department of Homeland Security to address people who stay overstay the length of their approved visas before placing new restrictions on visa waiver programs that are designed to boost U.S. tourism. 

The group said the federal government has not released data on visa overstays publicly since 1994, which predates the establishment of the homeland security department after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

"We should not even begin to discuss further improvements to visa security without much-needed data from the Department of Homeland Security on visa overstays," the Travel Association said Monday in a blog post on its website. 

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"In the wake of horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Congress has rightfully renewed attention to the security of U.S. visa programs," the travel group continued. "However, a recent New York Times story points out a knowledge gap that is hampering effective discussion of better visa security: the government doesn’t provide the public with accurate information on how many foreign visitors actually overstay their visas." 

The Department of State's Visa Waiver Program, which allows tourists from 38 pre-approved countries to visit the U.S. without obtaining a visa, has been under scrutiny since the shooting in San Bernanindo, Calif. last month.

Several lawmakers have suggested placing new restrictions on the program, although travel groups have pointed out that San Bernandino, Calif., shooter Tashfeen Malik entered the U.S. on a more obscure fiancé visa rather than the Department of State's general Visa Waiver Program. 

The travel association said Monday that the federal government should focus on properly managing the length of people's stays that are granted temporary visas instead of placing restrictions on countries whose travelers are already pre-cleared to visit the U.S. 

"Congress has required the release of this information for several decades," the group wrote. 

"However, The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not provided an answer to this simple question, much less provided breakdowns by country or type of visa," the travel group continued. "As we discuss further improvements to visa security and immigration enforcement that keeps America a welcoming place for legitimate international travelers, having an accurate view of visa compliance is vital."