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The Department of Homeland Security is moving to boost the security of a visa waiver program that allows for easy entry into the United States for people with passports from participating countries, amid fears about potential terrorist attacks. 

The agency said Thursday it will begin requiring passengers from the 38 countries whose tourists are allowed to visit the U.S. without obtaining a visa to use an e-passport during their trips. 

The Homeland Security Department has said e-passports contain an electronic chip and a biometric identifier that make it harder to “skim” travelers’ data. 

{mosads}Other new rules for visa waiver program participants include requiring passengers to be checked against a lost-and-stolen-passport list, which is maintained by international police force Interpol, and expanding the use of federal air marshals on flights from visa waiver countries. 

Homeland Security Security Jeh Johnson said the new requirements will boost the security of the visa waiver program, which he said is a valuable tourism recruitment tool.   

“As I have said a number of times now, the current global threat environment requires that we know more about those who travel to the United States. This includes those from countries for which we do not require a visa,” he said in a statement. 

“Our Visa Waiver Program is a valuable program for lawful trade and travel with this Nation’s most trusted partners,” Johnson continued. “Currently, there are 38 participants in the program. There is more we can do to enhance the security of this valuable program.” 

The visa waiver program has come under scrutiny as fears about international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have risen. Some lawmakers have said ISIS could try to exploit a weakness in the visa waiver program if they have access to travel documents from friendly nations. 

The U.S. Travel Association, which has pushed for an expansion of the visa waiver program, said the security changes announced Thursday by Johnson will not alter the impact of the program on U.S. tourism.  

“The majority of the provisions in this policy package, including those emphasized by Secretary Johnson regarding passport security and air marshals on incoming overseas flights, align perfectly with VWP’s core purpose and will clearly bolster national security,” Travel Association President Roger Dow said in a statement. 

Dow said his group still supports a bill that has been introduced in Congress that would expand the expand the visa waiver program to countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Israel, Panama, Poland, Romania and Uruguay. 

“Though security should always be its first principle, it is well worth keeping in mind how the American economy and job creation both benefit when the VWP functions well — both because reliable security is the bedrock of a healthy travel sector, and because the VWP exponentially boosts the number of trustworthy, high-spending overseas visitors who are able to efficiently gain access to the U.S.,” he said of the measure, which is known as the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act

Johnson steered clear of the push to expand the visa waiver program in his announcement Thursday, but he said the mechanisms he announced to boost security will not hamper tourism from the pre-approved countries. 

“The security enhancements we announce today are part of this Department’s continuing assessments of our homeland security in the face of evolving threats and challenges, and our determination to stay one step ahead of those threats and challenges,” he said. 

“It is our considered judgment that the security enhancements we announce today will not hinder lawful trade and travel with our partners in the Visa Waiver Program,” Johnson continued. “These measures will enhance security for all concerned.”

Tags ISIS Jeh Johnson United States Department of Homeland Security Visa Waiver Program

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