By Keith Laing - 09/30/15 12:15 PM EDT
Lawmakers in the Senate 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.
Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dean HellerDean HellerFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Senate lays groundwork for spending deal GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase MORE (R-Nev.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOvernight Defense: US attempted hostage rescue in Afghanistan | Defense hawks brace for spending fight | Trump slams 'lies' about Iraq war stance Senators want military separation policy to address trauma-related behavior Senate Dems reignite fight for hearing on SCOTUS nominee MORE (D-Minn.) and Mike LeeMike LeeSenators express 'grave concerns' about ObamaCare 'bailout' Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears Shutdown risk grows over Flint MORE (R-Utah) have introduced a measure that would expand the State Department’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which currently allows tourists from 38 nations to visit the U.S. without obtaining a visa. The measure is known as the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act.
Some lawmakers have raised concerns that members of terrorist groups, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), could try to exploit the VWP if they have access to travel documents from friendly nations.
“The flaws in our visa system are preventing the U.S. from reaping the full benefits of international tourism, and it’s time we fix them,” Schumer said in a statement.
“This bipartisan, commonsense bill would provide a jolt to our economy and grow tourism across the United States," he continued. "Rather than perpetuating a system that ties our hands and hurts job growth, I hope Democrats and Republicans will come together to make these reforms to our badly broken visa system.”
Lee agreed, saying, “International tourism plays a crucial role in the Utah economy.
“People come from all over the world to ski at our resorts, hike in our parks, and visit our landmarks," Lee said. "We should be doing all we can to encourage people across the globe to come to Utah and the rest of the United States.”
Tourism advocates have pushed for the expansion of the VWP before, but lawmakers raised questions in recent years about the possibility of terrorists gaining access to flights to the U.S. by using travel documents from nations whose 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 in March.
Prior to the rise of non-state terrorist groups like ISIS, the idea of expanding the VWP was popular with most lawmakers.
The State Department currently allows participation in the VWP 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 VWP 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 Wednesday that the JOLT Act would “further sharpen America's security and competitiveness in the booming global market for business and leisure travel.
"The U.S. travel community unambiguously praises this legislation, which identifies and implements valuable enhancements to inbound travel from Canada, trusted traveler programs, and the Visa Waiver Program," the group’s president, Roger Dow, said in a statement.
"Inbound international travel is already the No. 3 U.S. export, annually supporting more than one million American jobs, but that record of success is only possible because of the smart policies we have in place," Dow continued. "Two-thirds of international visitors arrive in the United States through the VWP, and every time a new country is added, we see visitation by its citizens skyrocket."
The Travel Association has said that expanding the VWP 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.
A prior bill to expand the visa waiver program was passed by the Senate i 2013, but supporters were unable to get it passed then by the House.
Dow said Wednesday that its passage this year "will send a powerful worldwide message that the United States is serious about security, but welcomes legitimate international visitors whose spending benefits destinations across the United States."
-This story was updated on Oct. 1 at 1:05 p.m. to correct an earlier version.