Bill filed to expand Visa Waiver Program despite terrorism fears

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Lawmakers are moving to expand a visa program that allows for easy entry into the United States for people with Western passports, despite fears about potential terrorist attacks that have been raised. 

Reps. Joe Heck (R-NV) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) have re-filed a measure that is known as the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act that would expand the expand the State Department’s visa waiver program, which currently allows tourists from 38 nations to visit the U.S. without obtain a visa. 

Some lawmakers say the visa waiver program has created a major security weakness that terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could try to exploit if they have access to travel documents from friendly nations. 

The sponsors of the JOLT legislation said the visa waiver program could be expanded without jeopardizing national security, however. 

"Boosting our economy and improving national security are two of the most critical challenges we face as a nation and the JOLT Act addresses them both," Heck said in a statement. 

"Expediting the visa interview process and expanding the Visa Waiver Program will bring more international travelers and tourists to destinations around our country and creates jobs,” he continued. “Making discretionary visa waiver security programs mandatory will improve our security at home and aid our intelligence community in the fight against global terrorism.” 

“Increasing international travel opportunities and updating visa travel protocol will drive tourism dollars to cities across the country, including Chicago, which welcomed more than one million overseas visitors in 2013,” Quigley added. “Now is the time to pass the JOLT Act and modernize the Visa Waiver Program specifically, strengthening our national security and enhancing relationships with important allies like Poland.”

The introduction of the visa waiver program follows a hearing in which lawmakers raised questions about the possibility of terrorists gaining access to flights to the U.S. by using travel documents from nations who tourists are cleared for visa-free entry into domestic airports.  

“The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen, as well as the more than 3,400 western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, remind us of the importance of constantly assessing trusted traveler programs to address potential vulnerabilities,” said Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman, during a hearing last week. 

Johnson said he was opening to tweaking the visa program to take into account the terrorism possibility rather than eliminating the program entirely. 

“We should work diligently with our foreign partners to continually refine the program to ensure full compliance with membership requirements and ensure VWP travelers are fully vetted,” he said. “Doing so will ensure that the VWP will remain a viable trusted traveler program that provides many benefits to Americans while benefiting U.S. security.” 

Prior to the rise of non-state terrorist groups like ISIS, the idea of expanding the visa waiver program was popular with most lawmakers. 

The State Department currently allows participation in the visa waiver program to citizens from more than three dozen countries, the majority of which are in Europe. The program was established in 1986. 

Tourism groups have pushed to expand the visa waiver program to Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Israel, Panama, Poland, Romania and Uruguay. Chile was added to the list of cleared nations in March 2014. 

The U.S. Travel Association said Tuesday the JOLT Act “would strengthen and expand the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), facilitating travel and trade while protecting the homeland.” 

“The travel industry's top priority is the security of our nation and travelers," the group’s president, Roger Dow, said in a statement. 

"We support effective reforms to the VWP like those in the JOLT Act which would both strengthen and expand the program,” Dow continued. “The VWP helps keep our country secure while facilitating international travel that adds billions in economic output and supports nearly one million jobs."

The Travel Association has said that expanding the visa waiver program to more countries would increase U.S. tourism by 600,000 visitors and add $7 billion and 40,000 jobs to the U.S. economy.

The bill to expand the visa waiver program was introduced in 2013, but supporters were unable to get it passed in either chamber. 

Rep. Heck said Tuesday he is confident the measure can be more successful this year, even with the terrorist fears that have been raised. 

“I look forward to working with Rep. Quigley again to continue building broad bipartisan support for the JOLT Act and, hopefully this year we can move the bill to the floor," he said.