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Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand screening of foreign visitors

Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand screening of foreign visitors
© Greg Nash

Two senators introduced bipartisan legislation this week that would expand the Department of Homeland Security’s visa screening process, with the goal of rooting out potential terrorists among foreign visitors.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Wis.) and panel member Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanCut tariffs and open US economy to fight COVID-19 pandemic Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities Overnight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings MORE (D-N.H.) proposed the Visa Security Expansion Act, which would direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expand its reach at U.S. embassies and consulates for a minimum of 10 years.

“With the fall of ISIS’s caliphate, I am deeply concerned about the threat that ISIS foreign fighters, armed with western passports, could pose to our homeland and our allies,” Hassan said in a statement accompanying the bill's introduction.

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The measure would seek to counter such a threat by increasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations agents, personnel “who aid the State Department in making decisions about whether to grant U.S. visas to foreign nationals,” Hassan added.

The agents, who are trained in counterterrorism, help the State Department conduct interviews for nonimmigrant visa applicants.

The legislation comes as violence has broken out in Afghanistan, including an ISIS bombing of an education center close to Kabul that killed 24 people on Saturday and clashes between Taliban militants and the government in the midst of peace talks. 

Johnson, who is also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the legislation would heighten national security “by placing agents with subject matter expertise and specialized training at posts deemed to be the highest risk.”

The current DHS program “plays a crucial role in keeping the U.S. safe from terrorists and criminals, and our legislation would strengthen this important front of our national security,” he said in the statement.

The bill, during a 10- to 25-year period beginning on the date of its enactment, would direct DHS and the State Department to add visa security units in at least two U.S. embassies or consulates each year.

The bill would pay for the staffing increases by tacking on a so-called security fee on nonimmigrant visas applications.