Story (In the News)

11.29.15

Visa-Waiver Program Gets Scrutiny: Lawmakers and Administration Officials Worry about a Security Threat in the Wake of the Paris Attacks

Wall Street Journal — By Kristina Peterson

Following an initial clash over how to respond to the Paris terrorist attacks, Congress and the White House are finding more common ground in efforts to bolster security through the program that makes it easier for foreigners to travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa.

Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate are eyeing ways to tighten the visa-waiver program, which allows foreign citizens of 38 countries to enter the U.S. for as long as 90 days without a visa, avoiding an in-person interview at an embassy or consulate.

Lawmakers and administration officials are worried the current program could pose a security threat in the wake of the Nov. 13 violence in Paris. Islamic State operative Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected architect of the Paris attacks, now dead, was a citizen of Belgium, which participates in the visa-waiver program.

“This is a huge issue,” Rep. Candice Miller (R., Mich.), the sponsor of legislation to allow the Homeland Security Department to suspend a country’s participation in the program if it isn’t sharing foreign travel and terrorism information with the U.S. “We have to look at our current systems and how terrorists are exploiting our freedoms” she said in an interview.

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A bill from Rep. Candice Miller (R., Mich.) would allow a country’s suspension from the visa-waiver program for not sharing foreign travel and terrorism information with the U.S.PHOTO: TOM WILLIAMS/CQ ROLL CALL/GETTY IMAGES

Mrs. Miller, whose bill was approved by a House committee last June, said she has been in discussions with House GOP leaders about bringing her legislation to the House floor.

Several senators are also looking at ways to tighten the program, under which at least 19 million foreign nationals enter the U.S. each year from countries mostly in Europe or Asia, plus a scattering of others. The White House is in talks with Senate Democrats over how the program could be tweaked.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) are working on a bill that would bar anyone who has traveled to Syria or Iraq within the past five years from coming to the U.S. through the visa-waiver program. Those travelers would have to obtain a visa and go through the traditional in-person interview.

Ms. Feinstein has said the visa-waiver program, while important for U.S. business and tourism, is “the soft underbelly of our national security policies.”

The travel industry has a stake in the outcome of efforts to strengthen security, but it wants to avoid making travel to the U.S. onerous.

“Travelers need to have the confidence to fly for our industry to thrive,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs at the U.S. Travel Association. Mr. Grella said the organization supports tightening the program to increase security but is working to avoid changes “that make travel either so burdensome or inefficient that it has a steep economic price.”

The legislation proposed by Sens. Feinstein and Flake would also require all foreign citizens traveling to the U.S. through the program to have a passport with an electronic chip to store biometric data such as fingerprints. Biometric systems can be complicated and require time to implement. The travel industry wants to ensure that a process designed to streamline visits to the U.S. doesn’t become unduly cumbersome.

Sen. Dan Coats (R., Ind.) has introduced legislation that doesn’t have a biometric component. It would require Homeland Security to review the program to see how its operations could be improved and would terminate the program with any country not fully cooperating with information-sharing efforts.

It isn’t clear yet whose legislation would form the basis of any effort to overhaul the program. Aides from both parties said changes were most likely to occur through a stand-alone bill, but could end up getting tucked into a package of legislation.

While there is an appetite to make changes to the visa program before Congress adjourns for its December holiday break, lawmakers may run out of time to pass a bill amid the crush of year-end legislation.

The emerging consensus over altering the visa waiver program is also still subject to treacherous political crosscurrents.

In the face of White House opposition, 47 House Democrats joined Republicans to pass legislation earlier this month that would halt and overhaul the screening of Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to enter the U.S.

Mr. Obama has said he would veto the legislation, arguing barring Syrian and Iraqi refugees would be contrary to American values and hurt U.S. efforts to combat the spread of Islamic State ideology.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has taken procedural steps that enable him to bring the House-passed bill to the Senate floor, but he hasn’t yet signaled when he would do so. Senate Democratic leaders oppose the refugee bill and it is uncertain whether Republicans could win over enough other Democrats to pass it.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are pushing to pair the visa-waiver legislation with a measure that would give the Justice Department authority to prevent a known or suspected terrorist on a watch list from buying firearms or explosives. The National Rifle Association opposes the measure, saying that while it doesn’t want terrorists to get weapons, the list sweeps too broadly and could prevent law-abiding citizens from purchasing a firearm.

—Carol E. Lee and Siobhan Hughes contributed to this article.

Article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal: www.wsj.com/articles/visa-waiver-program-gets-scrutiny-1448836856