Group wants travel bill added to immigration reform package

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers are pressing Republican leaders to include provisions aimed at making it easier to travel to the U.S. a part of immigration legislation.

Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Joe Heck (R-Nev.) are leading the charge to streamline the visa system, which they say would spark more people to come to the U.S. and make the nation a better home for international conferences. Both would boost the economy, they say.

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Their measure, known as the JOLT Act, includes an expansion of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and would set up a pilot program to test whether videoconferencing could speed up the visa interview process.

It would also add 3,500 new customs officers at major U.S. entry points to try to ensure foreign travelers wait no longer than 30 minutes to enter the U.S.

The effort is backed by travel industry groups, which for years have complained that foreign visitors to the U.S. have been turned off by rigorous security measures introduced since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Similar provisions to the Heck-Quigley bill were included in the Senate immigration bill that was approved by the upper chamber this week.

Immigration faces much tougher prospects in the House, however.

Heck told The Hill he has had positive discussions with House Judiciary Committee leaders including Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the panel's Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

And the bill has added 51 other co-sponsors, including Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Ralph Hall (R-Texas).

Still, Quigley acknowledged the bill faces an uncertain path given the differences between the House and Senate over immigration.

“The bottom line is we do not know how the Speaker intends to address this issue,” he told The Hill.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is not moving a comprehensive bill like the Senate’s, and is instead pursuing a batch of piecemeal bills on immigration.

Heck and Quigley said that a widespread realization by many lawmakers that modernizing nation's visa system would produce economic benefits for every state could lend a hand to their goal of adding the measure to a final bill.

“We're driving home the point that this is an important economic issue and that is a great job creator,” Heck said.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, urged the House to consider the importance of the travel industry and the broader economy after the Senate passed its measure on Thursday.

“As we welcome the Senate bill today, we urge the House of Representatives to equally consider how increased legitimate inbound travel for business and leisure purposes will enhance U.S. security and leverage the economic benefits of travel for all Americans,” he said.

“The Senate's passage today of historic immigration reform legislation is a significant step toward strengthening U.S. national security and encouraging more travel to and within the United States. Through a number of travel-friendly provisions, the bill will boost America's recovery by delivering jobs and economic growth to communities and businesses nationwide.”