Terrorism fears threaten visa waiver program

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Fears about potential terrorist attacks are threatening 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 that terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could try to exploit if they have access to travel documents from friendly nations. 

“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 this week. 

{mosads}“We should work diligently with our foreign partners to continually refine the program to ensure full compliance with membership requirements and ensure VWP travelers are fully vetted,” Johnson continued. “Doing so will ensure that the VWP will remain a viable trusted traveler program that provides many benefits to Americans while benefiting U.S. security.” 

Travel groups in Washington have moved to protect the visa waiver program from changes they say would make visiting the U.S. more difficult for tourists, which they say would greatly dampen the nation’s economy. 

“The Visa Waiver Program brings millions of travelers to the United States annually and pumps billions of dollars into our economy,” Global Business Travel Association Executive Director Michael McCormick said after the Senate hearing. 

“By facilitating travel and trade with 38 countries, the VWP spurs job creation and economic growth,” he continued. “The Visa Waiver Program positively impacts business travel, which accounted for an estimated $1.2 trillion dollars in global spending last year.” 

McMormick said the Visa Waiver Program “is a critical tool for American businesses involved in international trade” that should not be changed. 

“While the program is intended only to facilitate travel with allies, GBTA recognizes the potential security concerns to the United States,” he said. “As such, GBTA appreciates the need for oversight of the program, but urges Congress to resist imposing burdensome changes that would impact the viability of the program.”

Prior to the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, lawmakers mostly talked about expanding the visa waiver 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. The program was established in 1986. 

Tourism groups have pushed to expand the visa waiver program to Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Israel, Panama, Poland, Romania and Uruguay. Chile was added to the list of cleared nations in March 2014. 

That proposed expansion was included in a bipartisan bill, introduced in Congress last year, that was known as the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act (H.R. 1354). 

The U.S. Travel Association said when the measure was introduced that the JOLT Act would “leverage the benefits of inbound international travel to the United States to increase economic growth, create more jobs, generate additional tax revenue and boost U.S. exports.”

The 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.

Lawmakers said during Thursday’s hearing that the economic value of the program is trumped by security concerns that have arisen since its inception. 

“Congress and the Department of Homeland Security have worked hard to balance the natural tension in the Visa Waiver Program between the need to facilitate international travel and the need to keep Americans safe from the evolving terrorist threats,” said Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security panel. 

“With that said, the threats that we face from terrorists have evolved during the life of the Visa Waiver Program,” Carper continued. “When the Visa Waiver Program was enhanced in 2007, the preeminent threat to the homeland was from al-Qaeda’s central branch led by Osama bin Laden. Today, bin Laden is no more. Al-Qaeda’s core branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been severely weakened. But in their place, al-Qaeda splinter groups in the Middle East and Africa have arisen and adopted new tactics that pose new threats for our country.” 

Supporters of the program pleaded with Congress to not make drastic changes in response to the rise of non-state terrorist threats.  

“While some have raised questions about the security value of the program and whether it should be scaled back, I firmly believe that any withdrawal or departure from the Visa Waiver Program would be a huge mistake,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served in the George W. Bush administration, told the panel. 

“Constructed in a way to powerfully reduce vulnerabilities in our immigration and travel system, it is my belief that the Visa Waiver Program offers significant benefits to U.S. national and economic security and should not be pulled back in a time like this but further evaluated for ways that can strengthen our security and the benefits it may yield,” Chertoff continued.  

Tags Michael Chertoff National security Ron Johnson Tom Carper Visa Waiver Program

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