Travel industry lines up against refugee restrictions

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The airline and tourism industries are lining up against proposals to restrict visas for Syrian refugees, despite mounting calls from lawmakers to cut off access to the U.S. following Friday’s attacks in Paris. 

Many lawmakers have said visas should be suspended for travelers from countries such as Syria after last week’s attacks, where a series of coordinated strikes killed 129 people across the French capital.

{mosads}Airline and travel groups say cutting off travel to the U.S. would be contrary to American ideals, however. 

“In the aftermath of 9/11, America and its leaders chose freedom over fear, which enabled our nation’s recovery on multiple levels. That was the proper instinct then and it remains so now,” U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow said after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) unveiled legislation to block visas for travelers from “countries with a high risk of terrorism.” 

“Sen. Paul is suggesting a discredited 1930s approach — sweeping isolationism — to a decidedly 21st century problem,” Dow continued.

“Tempting though it sometimes may be, we can’t simply shut ourselves off from the world,” he said. “If we do, shame on us, because then we’re giving the enemy precisely what they want — terror, resignation, our prosperity and our very way of life.” 

Travel groups have been pushing to expand the State Department’s Visa Waiver Program. The program currently allows tourists from 38 nations to visit the U.S. without obtaining a visa, despite fears about potential terrorist attacks that were raised even before the events in Paris. Syria is not one of the countries currently on the visa-waiver list. 

Lawmakers have resisted expanding the waiver program in recent years, citing terrorism fears that were attributed to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

“The time has come to stop terrorists from walking in our front door,” Paul, a Republican candidate for the presidency next year, said in a statement. “The Boston Marathon bombers were refugees, and numerous refugees from Iraq, including some
living in my hometown, have attempted to commit terrorist attacks. 

“The terrorist attacks in Paris underscore this concern that I have been working to address for the past several years,” he continued. “My bill will press pause on new refugee entrants from high-risk countries until stringent new screening procedures are in place.” 

The Kentucky senator’s legislation would also impose a waiting period on visa processing for travelers from other countries. 

The group that lobbies for airlines in Washington, Airlines for America, said that such a ban on visa processing would be harmful to tourists wishing to visit the U.S. 

“The Visa Waiver Program is an important tool which enables our government to help facilitate the movement of travelers to the United States, while maintaining the highest levels of security,” the group said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.

The fight over Syrian refugees has become a lightning rod in the 2016 race, with Republican presidential candidates lining up in favor of restricting Syrian refugees’ access to the U.S. — and President Obama sharply criticizing their calls as out of step with the nation’s character. 

“They’ve been playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns. And it’s irresponsible,” Obama said during a press conference in the Philippines on Tuesday. “And it’s contrary to who we are. And it needs to stop, because the world is watching.”

GOP presidential candidates have latched onto the refugee issue to argue that the administration is weak on protecting U.S. citizens from potential terrorists. 

“Refugees are pouring into our great country from Syria,” GOP front-runner Donald Trump said in an Instagram video. 

“We don’t even know who they are,” he continued. “They could be ISIS, they could be anybody.”

Though Syria is not one of the 38 nations that are included in the pre-clearance program, travel groups tout the Visa Waiver Program as a way to ensure that visitors to the U.S. are properly checked.

“The Visa Waiver Program is an effective, essential security tool that we cannot afford to relinquish, especially when it played zero role in the Paris attacks,” the Travel Association’s Dow said. “Let’s address the security problems we have, rather than creating new ones.”

Despite the calls from travel groups, Republicans in the House said Wednesday that they are moving ahead with a bill to place additional restrictions on travelers from Syria.

“People understand the plight of those fleeing the Middle East. But they also want basic assurances for the safety of this country,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said. 

“We can be compassionate and we can also be safe.”

Tags Donald Trump Paul Ryan Rand Paul Refugees of the Syrian Civil War Syria Visa Visa Waiver Program

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