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United States suspends two visa programs

Visas now required for fliers transiting through the country

From Jeanne Meserve

Federal screeners check passengers at a security checkpoint at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas.
Federal screeners check passengers at a security checkpoint at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Fearing that terrorists could exploit a vulnerability, the United States suspended two programs that allow some international air passengers to transit through the country without a visa.

The suspensions of the transit without visa program and the international-to-international transit program were made on Saturday and are immediate, but will not affect U.S. citizens or nationals of 27 other countries from which visas to travel to the United States are not required.

Exceptions are also being made for people who are now traveling or who have tickets to travel soon.

A Homeland Security Department official says additional Customs and Border Protection inspectors are being deployed to the nation's airports to ease any problems, and the State Department will be working to process the visas quickly.

The change was made in response to recent intelligence indicating that potential hijackers might be looking to exploit the programs, which allow transit passengers to stay on the ground in the United States without a visa for as long as 24 hours. In the past, immigrant smugglers have exploited security weaknesses around such passengers.

These provisions govern those now traveling or with tickets to travel soon:

• Passengers in the air or in the process of traveling on an outbound leg at the time the new requirement went into effect will be able to transit and depart the United States, subject to inspection and evaluation of risk.

• Travelers who bought their tickets on or before July 24 and who are scheduled to depart for transit through the United States before 12:01 a.m. Tuesday need not obtain a visa.

• Travelers who have transited through the United States on the first leg of a trip and who will use the return portion before 11 a.m. August 9 may make a stop in the United States without a visa, but will be processed by Customs and Border Patrol personnel on arrival.

Anyone not qualifying for one of those three exceptions must obtain a visa or change his or her itinerary.

A State Department spokeswoman said 6,000 travelers will be affected during the next 60 days.

The State and Homeland Security departments said they will reinstate the visa programs as soon as additional security measures can be put in place. The government plans to seek input from the airlines as it reviews the process.

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