Congress must address vulnerabilities with Visa Waiver Program

The 9/11 Commission accurately noted that, “for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.” That was certainly the case on 9/11, and, unfortunately, it is still true today. 

What has changed dramatically since 9/11, however, is the way terrorist organizations are metastasizing.

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Today, we are increasingly seeing radical jihadists, like ISIS, use social media, online propaganda, encrypted communications, and Internet dark space, giving them a never-seen-before global reach that has inspired thousands to join their fight against Western society. 

Their successful recruitment efforts were highlighted last month when the House Task Force on Combating Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel released its final report detailing what it called, “the largest global convergence of jihadists in history.”

According to the Task Force report, since 2011, nearly 30,000 individuals from over 100 countries have traveled to the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, including over 4,500 Westerners who have teamed up with ISIS. 

Problem: Many of these recruits are from countries that participate in our Visa Waiver Program, which allows for visa-free travel into the U.S. 

The U.S. Visa Waiver Program was established in 1986 to expedite travel to and from the U.S. between our allied countries.  Its admirable goal is to spur tourism and economic growth.  However, if and when participating countries fail to share pertinent security information, its benefits become severely outweighed by threat. 

Today, there are 38 countries participating in our Visa Waiver Program, including many countries whose citizens have been, and are being, recruited by ISIS.  For example, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of the horrific attacks in Paris, was a citizen of Belgium – a participant of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. 

Although we know the Department of Homeland Security continuously vets all visa applicants against our terrorism databases, we also know that we do not routinely get the critical information we need to identify and stop foreign fighters bound for the U.S., which is why I introduced the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act.

My bill empowers DHS by giving it the authority to suspend a country’s participation in the program if it fails to provide us with the pertinent information needed to stop terrorists from entering the U.S.  Additionally, my bill strengthens our counterterrorism efforts by codifying the Department’s newly adopted practice of collecting additional biographical data before an applicant can travel into the U.S. visa-free.

Last week, the House took an important step to stop terrorists trying to exploit the U.S. refugee resettlement program by passing the American SAFE Act.  However, there are other known vulnerabilities, including within our Visa Waiver Program, and today’s global reach of terrorism demands that we do more to protect our citizens.

Over the past two weeks, since the Paris attacks, we’ve seen a flurry of legislative proposals to keep foreign fighters off U.S. soil, including a Senate proposal to limit visa-free travel for individuals who have traveled to Syria and/or Iraq in the past five years. 

I welcome that proposal and any other proposal that may improve our Visa Waiver Program.  However, my bill, which is supported by U.S. Travel and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, has already – unanimously – passed the Homeland Security Committee and should now go before the full House, consistent with regular order.

We cannot afford to wait.  

Miller has represented Michigan’s 10th Congressional District since 2003. She is chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, chairs the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, and also sits on the Transportation Committees.