The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is spurring calls for major changes to a visa program that allows for easy entry into the United States for people with Western passports.
Some lawmakers say the program, which allows citizens from 38 countries to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa, has created a major security weakness for groups such as ISIS to exploit.
House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said Friday that as many as 3,000 members of ISIS have U.S. or European passports and could slip into America undetected.
“The biggest fear is that there are 10,000 to 12,000 foreign fighters that have joined ISIS and various estimates but many of them have Western passports,” Thornberry said on CNN.
“They're either American or they're Western European passports. So they can come here to the United States homeland without a visa. And they can bring ... what they've learned about bomb-making and about assassinations with them here at home.”
But lawmakers have mostly talked about expanding the program, not scaling it back.
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.
Tourism groups have pushed to expand the visa waiver program to Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Israel, Panama, Poland, Romania and Uruguay.
That proposed expansion was included in a bipartisan bill that was introduced in Congress that known as the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act (H.R. 1354).
The sponsors of the legislation in the House, Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), said in an op-ed that was published by The Hill earlier this year that that the measure would boost “the number of high-spending international travelers to the United States without compromising national security.
“Each overseas visitor spends an average of nearly $4,500 per trip to the U.S., adding nearly $130 billion to the economy in 2012. One American job is created for every 33 international visitors—meaning over one million domestic jobs were supported by inbound travel in 2012,” the lawmakers wrote in February.
“[The Visa Waiver Program] expansion itself has a proven, immediate and marked economic benefit; in the year after the program was expanded to South Korea, spending in the U.S. by visitors from that affluent country more than tripled, according to a forthcoming study from the U.S. Travel Association,” they continued.
The U.S. 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.
Heck and Quigley said initiatives like the Visa Waiver Program and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency’s Global Entry Program make it easier for tourists to visit the United States.
“This enables pre-approved, low-risk international travelers to avail themselves of expedited Customs and Border Patrol screenings, rather than spend in excess of four hours waiting for clearance in some cases,” the lawmakers wrote.
But Thornberry said the presence of western passport holders in ISIS should prompt lawmakers to take a fresh look at the program.
“We know they don't hesitate to kill people,” he said. “And it's not just individuals. They don't hesitate to kill hundreds or thousands of people. And so I have no doubt they are planning on how they can do that here at home in the United States and in Western Europe.
“The numbers vary,” Thornberry continued. “I don't know the exact number, 2,000 to 3,000, say, have Western passports. It only takes a handful, as we saw on 9/11, to do enormous damage.”
White House officials said Friday that they were not worried about any imminent attempts by ISIS to strike the United States.
“To date, they have operated much like an insurgency in Syria and Iraq, and again, they are deeply rooted in the insurgency that we faced in Iraq for many years as the legacy organization of al Qaida in Iraq,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
“For Americans in the homeland, I think what we'd say is we monitor very closely whether or not [ISIS] will seek to develop plots that are aimed at the West, aimed at beyond this geographic area where they have been operating,” Rhodes continued.
Rhodes acknowledged the possibility of ISIS fighters using Western passports to avoid detection from security officials and said the president would seek to address that issue next month at the United Nations.
“The president is going to convene at the head of state level a U.N. Security Council meeting in September to deal with the issue of foreign fighters who are heading to Syria, because we're concerned about the ability of foreign fighters to come from Western countries and seek to come back,” he said.
“If they show the intent or they show plotting against the United States, we'll be prepared to deal with that as necessary,” he said.
—This story was updated at 2:05 p.m. to correct an earlier version.