US Congress Moves to Tighten Controls on Visa-Free Travel
The U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would bar people who have visited Syria, Iraq or any "country or area of concern" in the past five years from a program that allows visa-free entry to the United States.
The legislation is part of a bipartisan push to amend the Visa Waiver Program that currently allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. for stays of 90 days and less without first obtaining a visa from an embassy or consulate.
The bill, which passed 407-19 late Tuesday, would institute a series of changes, including requiring participating countries to check travelers against Interpol databases to determine whether they are wanted by law enforcement agencies based on ties to terrorism or criminal activity.
To prevent falsification of passports, the measure would require all 38 countries to issue what it calls “e-passports” containing biometric information. The bill would require countries to be able to confirm that such documents are legitimate when they are scanned.
Some 20 million visitors come to the U.S. annually under the visa waiver program. They already are screened through an online system maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
To take effect, the changes must be approved by the Senate and President Barack Obama.
Hundreds of Syrians Leaving Last Rebel-Held Part of Homs
Hundreds of people are leaving the last rebel-held section of the central Syrian city of Homs on Wednesday as part of a local peace deal with the government.
Syrian forces besieged the area for several years during the country's civil war, as pockets of rebels remained in the area that was one of the early flashpoints in the conflict.
In addition to opposition fighters leaving the Wael district, hundreds of civilians are boarding buses out of the area. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence in Syria, said 750 people were expected to leave Wednesday.
Once the rebel fighters leave, the Syrian government will be in full control of Homs, which is located about 150 kilometers north of the capital, Damascus, along a highway that also connects the cities of Hama and Aleppo further to the north.
Efforts to bring a comprehensive peace agreement to Syria have so far yielded little progress, while smaller, local deals have been struck in several parts of the country. The United Nations and a group of world powers are currently working to get the Syrian government and various opposition groups to begin U.N.-mediated talks by January 1.