The terror attacks in Paris last week have brought new scrutiny to the visa waiver program in the U.S., which is intended to facilitate travel among several Western countries.
Initiallay, attention in the aftermath of the attacks focused on the plan for the U.S. to accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. The House voted Thursday to effectively pause the program. But while one of the attackers might have posed as a Syrian refugee to re-enter Europe, the other terrorists appear to have been French or Belgian citizens. And some lawmakers are saying it’s time to revise the visa waiver program so Europeans who become radicalized don’t have such easy access to the U.S.
Some Western Europeans “are allowed to travel to the U.S. without getting a visa in advance, and so if they’re not on a no-fly list, if they’re not watch listed, they can come in,” said CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. “That has lawmakers worried.”
Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, teamed up Thursday to introduce a bill that would not allow anyone who has traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years to travel to the U.S. under the visa waiver program. They would still be allowed to visit but would have to obtain a traditional visa, which involves submitting to an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
The bill would also require individuals using the visa waiver program to hold a passport with an e-chip that contains biometric data, which prevents tampering with passports and makes it easier for law enforcement officials to make sure the passport belongs to the person carrying it.
The visa waiver program “is important to the business community and the tourism industry and I have supported it, but I also believe it is the soft underbelly of our national security policies,” Feinstein said at a press conference Thursday. “Considering there are 45 million lost or stolen travel documents on the global black market today, many of them passports, it’s clear that we need to reform the program.”
There are currently 38 countries whose citizens are allowed to travel to the U.S. without applying for a visa. Most are in Western Europe. Twenty million people each year use the program.
The bill could be a bipartisan answer to the calls for better security after the attacks.
“The visa waiver program potentially is the place where there’s greater gaps, possibly, than the refugee program itself,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said after a Wednesday briefing on the terror attacks.
But such a move is likely to draw scrutiny from peole in the travel industry. Jonathan Grella, the executive vice president for the U.S. Travel Association, said, “It would be a grave error by Congress to scapegoat a successful program–without as much as a hearing–that had zero to do with a recent tragedy.”
“We are concerned even more by the unknown consequences or expenses of an elaborate new ‘system’ — devised and deployed in an instant–to overhaul [the visa waiver program] without appropriate vetting or scrutiny,” he said.
Democrats are eyeing another bill as well: Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, introduced legislation Thursday to close a loophole in federal law that allows foreigners who have come to the U.S. under the visa waiver program to purchase and carry guns (foreigners who do not come from visa waiver countries are prohibited from purchasing guns).
“To think that we have this loophole or gap in the law is unimaginable,” Durbin said at the press conference. “This man who went into the concert hall in Paris used an automatic weapon to kill so many people. Wouldn’t we want to make certain under our laws in the United States that kind of person would never ever be able to buy a firearm.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, called it a “wildly reckless loophole.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, echoed Durbin’s and Reid’s complaint and added that known or suspected terrorists interested in buying firearms or explosives “don’t have to bring it with them — they can buy it once they get here.”
A report from the New America Foundation released Wednesday estimated there are 4,500 Westerners who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other militant groups. Far more come from Western European countries and Australia, which are in the visa waiver program. Americans represent just six percent of that total.
Western Europe poses a particular challenge, in part because aspiring militants can draw on more established jihadist networks.
“The French have said they’ve got a problem, and certainly what you saw on the streets of Paris reflects that,” Zarate said. “The problem there is can you identify where they’ve come back from? And secondly even if you know that, can you actually track all these individuals? As we’ve known from the French they’ve got hundreds and thousands of individuals they’ve got to worry about. The British have thousands of cases that they’ve got to worry about….So, how do you prioritize when you’ve got all these people, and how do you know that these individuals are dangerous or not? That’s the challenge.”