House votes overwhelmingly to restrict visa waivers for travelers
© Greg Nash

The House voted Tuesday to restrict a program that allows people from some countries to come to the U.S. without a visa, responding to growing fears about the threat of terrorism from overseas.

Lawmakers easily approved the measure in a bipartisan, 407-19 vote. All 19 votes against the measure were from Democrats.

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The waiver program allows tourists from 38 countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain and France, to stay in the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. About 20 million tourists use the program each year. 

Concerns about the program’s security have spiked following reports that all of the identified attackers in Paris were European nationals. Tourists who use the visa waiver program are already screened against American security databases, but are subject to less restrictive checks than other travelers.

“We simply cannot give people from other countries special access to our country if we don’t have all of the information that we absolutely need to ensure that they are not a threat to national security,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the bill’s author.

Under the legislation, citizens from countries that qualify for the program would be denied visa-free entry to the U.S. if they have visited Iraq, Syria or other countries deemed to be terror hotspots in the last five years, or if they are citizens of those countries. Those individuals would instead have to pass through a more stringent security process.

The measure would further direct the Department of Homeland Security to remove a country from the visa waiver program if it doesn’t share counterterrorism data with the U.S. It would also require eligible countries to screen travelers against INTERPOL databases for links to criminal activity.

Provisions of the bill are expected to be included in a catchall government spending measure known as the omnibus that lawmakers are racing to finish this week. Negotiators are still trying to reach an agreement on policy riders to be included in the legislation, including a measure to restrict refugee resettlement.

Government funding is slated to run out on Friday.

The House vote comes after the Obama administration last week moved to expand security checks for the visa-waiver program, such as determining whether travelers had visited countries with significant terror activity. 

President Obama called on Congress to go even further to secure the program during his prime time Oval Office address on Sunday night.

“We should put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they’ve traveled to warzones. And we’re working with members of both parties in Congress to do exactly that,” Obama said.

Tuesday’s vote stands in contrast to a more partisan bill the House passed last month that would enhance security requirements for refugees from Iraq or Syria seeking asylum in the United States.

Liberal Democrats denounced that bill, saying America should not turn its back on the world's most vulnerable people. 

“While the refugee bill showed our country and this body at its worst, today’s bill makes sensible improvements to the security of the visa waiver program,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.)