GOP looks to tighten screws on visa program

GOP looks to tighten screws on visa program

Congressional Republicans are eyeing changes to a decades-old visa waiver program amid growing concerns that a terrorist could use the lightened travel restrictions to enter the United States.

The program has come under intense scrutiny after reports linked last week's Paris attacks — which killed 129 people — to suspected French and Belgian nationals. Undercurrent rules, individuals from nearly 40 countries can visit the United States without a visa for up to 90 days.

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Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanMcCain votes to advance ObamaCare repeal, replace after vowing to oppose Senate rejects ObamaCare repeal, replacement amendment Trump turns up heat on AG Sessions over recusal MORE (R-Ohio) said that there are up to 5,000 foreign fighters from countries that are part of the program.

"It's a huge problem because those people can go back to their home country and then with much less of a screening come into this country because of the waiver of their visa," he said.

While lawmakers quickly rallied around legislation cracking down on the acceptance of Syrian refugees into the country in the wake of the attacks, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) suggested that visa waiver program likely poses a larger threat.

“Were I in Europe already and I wanted to go to the United States… the likelihood is I’d use the visa waiver program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee," the Intelligence Committee chairman told reporters after a briefing with administration officials.

But while there's broad agreement that the program needs to be strengthened in an effort to make sure members of terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), can't enter the country, how far any legislation should go is a point of division.

"There's certainly a recognition that there are issues. Some want to go much further. Some would like to get rid of the whole program, I would not," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said about his conversations with Republican colleagues on the visa waiver program. “My position is let’s make policy, not just try to make a point.”

While Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) previously introduced legislation that would suspend the program for countries that don’t comply with information-sharing requirements, the Paris attacks are reigniting debate and providing fodder for the Senate's presidential contenders.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told Fox News that the program should undergo “fundamental reforms… given the prevalence of radical Islamic terrorism in Europe” though he didn’t specify what he would like to see changed.

Meanwhile, a proposal to overhaul the program from Sen. Rand Paul, who is also running for president, is getting fast-tracked through the Senate, though it hasn’t been scheduled for a vote.

“I think many of the…attackers in France, could have actually gotten on a plane. Some of them will probably turn out to be — have been on a watch list, but I think some of them will turn out to be people for whom we did not have any suspicion,” Paul told CNN after announcing his legislation. “But I think making people go through a process to visit our country, it’s the only thing we can do.”

That legislation includes a provision that would require individuals from the countries that are part of the Visa Waiver Program, including France, to wait 30 days before entering the United States, unless they have been pre-cleared by Customs and Border Protection.

But Democrats quickly dismissed Paul’s legislation, suggesting the Kentucky Republican is trying to advance his presidential campaign.  

Asked about the 30-day wait, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said "well, you can just see when you have to come up with a press release every day in a presidential campaign that you're going to come up with some pretty screwy ideas.”

Instead, Durbin and other Democrats are working with Flake to propose narrower changes to the program aimed at targeting potential foreign fighters.

Their legislation — which is expected to be formally offered after Thanksgiving — would require anyone that has traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years to get a visa to enter the United States, even if they are from a country that participates in the visa waiver program.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that she supports taking a "closer look" at the program.

“We know that many of the attackers in the Paris incident were French citizens or Belgian citizens and those are countries that are part of the visa waiver program, and I just think we need to take a hard look at that program because it allows such easy access to the United States,” she added. “That doesn't mean we should do away with it.”

Portman added that he would be willing to look at a proposal, even if it is led by Democrats.

“I mean absolutely, I do bipartisan stuff all the time,” he said, adding that lawmakers “absolutely need to tighten up the visa waiver program.”

Flake suggested that he’s hopeful that his Republican colleagues will be able to rally around the legislation.

“As people look at this and consider what our vulnerabilities are that’s got to be near the top. I’m hearing support,” he said. “ This is a real issue we have. …Hopefully we can get it passed on a bipartisan basis.”