Some fear changes to visa waiver program could affect immigrant families

Inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. Federal officials are moving to restrict a program that lets travelers from 38 countries visit the United States with minimal screening.
Inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. Federal officials are moving to restrict a program that lets travelers from 38 countries visit the United States with minimal screening.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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Federal officials are moving to tighten the U.S. visa waiver program, which has long allowed travelers from 38 countries to visit the U.S. with minimal screening.

The idea is to help prevent terrorist attacks, like the recent mass shootings in Paris. But some fear tighter rules might hamper immigrant families ability to see one another.

While most of the countries on the visa waiver list are in Europe, the list also includes nations like South Korea and Taiwan, which have strong migrant networks in Southern California.

More than 200,000 Korean immigrants live in the Los Angeles area, said Jenny Seon of the Korean Resource Center, a local immigrant assistance group. Many of these families have relatives in South Korea, she said, and they rely on the visa waiver program to see each other without long waits.

“While the Paris attacks were a terrible event, we feel that with Congress tightening up on the visa waiver, it is a direct and unreasonable knee-jerk reaction that only punishes immigrant families," Seon said.

Travelers from visa waiver countries can visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Otherwise, obtaining a visa can be a long process, Seon said.

"You can miss birthdays, and weddings," Seon said. "With the waiver, you don't have to wait that long." 

Seon said many South Koreans who travel here on visa waivers are themselves waiting to join family permanently in the United States. That process can take several years, so "while the petition is pending, the visa waiver program enables family members to stay in touch."

Some new restrictions to the waiver program have already been made. On Monday, the White House announced changes that include beefing up the use of biometric data, and checking visitors' travel history for trips to terrorist-harboring countries.

A Senate bill proposes tighter restrictions, including fingerprinting travelers, and a requirement that would bar people who have traveled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years from receiving waivers, requiring them instead to obtain a traditional visa.

The House is also set to weigh legislation that could require countries that participate in the visa waiver program to issue "smart passports" with biometric features.