Senators introduce bipartisan visa bill, in shift away from refugee debate

Senators introduce bipartisan visa bill, in shift away from refugee debate
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan pair of senators on Tuesday introduced legislation that would add new security measures for foreign travelers coming to the United States through a special tourist program, in an effort to block foreign extremists from plotting attacks on American soil.

The bill from Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHouse passes bipartisan bill to create women's history museum Democrats bullish on bill to create women's history museum: 'It's an election year' What the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber MORE (D-Calif.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMcSally launches 2020 campaign Sinema will vote to convict Trump Senate drama surrounding Trump trial starts to fizzle MORE (R-Ariz.) amounts to a refocusing away from the House's efforts to block the Obama administration’s plans for Syrian refugees, and offers a window of compromise to shore up U.S. defenses following the terrorist attacks across Paris last month. 

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“The Paris terror attacks were committed by French and Belgian nationals, which means it would have been possible for them to board a plane to this country using the visa waiver porogram,” Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

The visa waiver program allows roughly 20 million tourists a year from 38 countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia, to enter the U.S. without a visa. The program uses a “layered” system to screen visitors through a Department of Homeland Security system, but is much less restrictive than the process for other visitors to the country.

Following the deadly attacks in Paris, the program has emerged as a bipartisan target for reform, given the fear that radicalized European nationals could use it to enter the U.S. and stage an attack.

“In the wake the Paris terrorist attacks, it’s important that Congress work together in a meaningful way to ensure that those who would do us harm on our own soil are unable to do so,” said Flake.

The Senate bill comes a day after the White House unveiled a series of administrative steps to tighten up the visa waiver program, in what seemed to be a more aggressive tone following weeks of criticism about President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

“There are some significant security gains derived from this program,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. “The question is, are there some things that we can do to strengthen that screening prior to individuals boarding an airplane?”

A bipartisan group of thirteen senators signed on to cosponsor Tuesday’s bill, called the Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act.

The bill directly answers some calls from the White House, by beefing up information-sharing between the U.S. and other countries, as well as speeding up the requirement that foreign travelers use e-passports, which come with embedded security chips.

It would also add new steps, such as requiring people who have traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years to go through the traditional visa process — which includes an in-person interview — before coming to the U.S. The bill would also require foreign nations to give a fingerprint and photograph before visiting the country as well as demand the completion of a federal air marshal agreement.

The new security steps would be paid for by an increase in the fee for tourists using the visa waiver program, senators said, which currently stands at $14.

Changes to the visa waiver program have run into opposition from companies involved in travel, who have worried that extra hurdles for tourists would cut down on the millions of dollars that foreigners spend in the U.S. On Monday, the U.S. Travel Association said that it was “amenable” to the White House’s changes, though it remains unclear whether it will also support the Senate bill. 

Earnest said Monday that the White House had been in contact with a bipartisan group of senators for two weeks, about “technical improvements to our visa waiver program that would enhance our national security without undermining the international connections that are critical to the strength of our economy.”

“Congress should pass that legislation before they leave,” he added.