The House on Thursday passed a legislation to limit certain travel privileges granted to citizens of 38 friendly foreign countries. This is believed to be the first step in what lawmakers expect will be a larger response to an evolving terrorist threat. The program will only be allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. until prominent national security agencies ascertain that they don’t pose any potential security threat.
“We need to strengthen the security of the Visa Waiver Program to keep terrorists from reaching our shores,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement.
The vote was 289-137, with 47 Democrats joining 242 Republicans in favor of the bill, creating a majority that could overrule President Barack Obama’s promised veto. Lawmakers have argued that the biggest reason for reform of the program is that thirty of the 38 countries whose passport-holders are eligible for the waiver program are in Europe, meaning that most could probably come to the United States without a visa under present rules. Lawmakers are highly concerned about those 5,000 to 30,000 radicalized individuals who have visited Syria and Iraq and hold European passports.
“That’s what this bill is designed to stop,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement. “We need to strengthen the security of the Visa Waiver Program to keep terrorists from reaching our shores.”
The visa waiver program was introduced in the 1980s as a means of increasing business travel and tourism to the United States and hundreds of millions of people have taken advantage of the initiative.
While an earlier vote to suspend Syrian and Iraqi refugee admissions “showed the country and this body at its worst,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, “Today’s bill makes sensible improvements to the security of the visa waiver program.”
Travelers would also have to have electronic passports like those already issued in the U.S. to intercept fraud. “We live in a free and open society,” said Rep. But the FBI’s announcement that the shooters who killed 14 people after storming a health department Christmas party at a facility for developmentally disabled individuals had been radicalized for “quite some time” has prompted officials to take a critical look at the K-1 visa program as well. The bill would also require visa-waiver countries to adopt passports with electronic chips to ascertain and ensure the traveler’s identity by April 1, in an effort to reduce fraud. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are reviewing the fiancé visa program “to assess possible program enhancements,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron told the Associated Press.
“The human interview isn’t a failsafe either,” Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) noted, adding that administration officials had told her they can sometimes get more information from the forms visitors have to fill out then from in-person interviews.
However, not many lawmakers believe that the proposed reforms would solve concerns with the waiver program.