House to take up bill tightening visa program next week

House to take up bill tightening visa program next week
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The House next week will take up legislation to reform a program that gives tourists from 38 countries an expedited path into the United States, citing fears about terrorism after last month’s attacks in Paris. 

The visa waiver program, which is used by roughly 20 million tourists per year, “really leaves our country vulnerable,” Rep. Candice MillerCandice Sue MillerThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump eyes narrowly focused response to Iran attacks GOP struggles with retirement wave Women poised to take charge in Dem majority MORE (R-Mich.), who wrote legislation to reform the program, said on Thursday.


“Five thousand Western passport holders have traveled to Iraq and Syria,” emphasized House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyDemocratic caucus chairs call for Boebert committee assignment removal War of words escalates in House The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud MORE (R-Calif.), appearing alongside Miller and other top GOP lawmakers. “This is why this is needed now to be able to combat this.”

Miller’s bill received unanimous approval when it passed out of the Homeland Security Committee in June, and is likely to receive a bipartisan vote on the floor next week, McCarthy promised.

“This bill will become law,” he insisted.

A bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers introduced similar legislation on Wednesday, in a sign that reforms to the visa waiver program could sail quickly to President Obama’s desk. That would be a shift from the House’s earlier focus on stemming the flow of refugees from Iraq and Syria, which has encountered heavy resistance from the White House and become a contentious political issue.

The visa waiver program allows certain tourists from countries including Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom to visit the U.S. for 90 days without having to obtain a visa.

It has become a target of national security officials in recent weeks, given the proliferation of Europeans who have traveled to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and then returned home. The calls gained new urgency last month, since all of the identified attackers in Paris are believed to be European nationals.

On Monday, the Obama administration unilaterally tightened the program and called for Congress to follow suit with actions of its own. 

“ISIS has an intent to hit the West,” Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said on Thursday.

“That’s why this legislation is so important; it will strengthen the visa waiver program – not abolish it – but strengthen it to keep terrorists from reaching our shores.”

The bill would prevent people from taking part in the program if they have traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan since 2011, or have dual citizenship with those countries. It would also allow the government to suspend countries’ participation in the program if they do not sufficiently share information about possible threats or are determined to pose a high risk to U.S. national security.

“It’s important to understand: no one specifically by this bill is barred from entering the United States,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). “It simply adds an additional security precaution of going to get a visa... rather than bypassing that process.”

The legislation would also add new steps to ensure that travelers are screened through INTERPOL databases and calls for other countries to speed up their adoption of e-passports, which contain microchips and are resistant to fraud, officials claim.  

The biggest concerns about changes to the visa waiver program have come from the tourism industry, which has worried about possible economic impacts to the country if there are fewer visitors.

However, the U.S. Travel Association has endorsed the House bill, McCarthy said on Thursday.