WASHINGTON – Amid frightening attacks at home and abroad, the House is poised to crack down on visa-free travel to the U.S. from friendly nations like Belgium and France, aiming to ensure that the Paris attacks won't be repeated here.
Legislation denying visa-free travel to anyone who's been in Iraq or Syria in the past five years is set for a vote in the House on Tuesday and is likely to pass by a wide bipartisan margin. The bill also makes a series of other changes to the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa for stays of 90 days or less.
Around 20 million visitors come to the U.S. each year on the visa waiver program, and overhauling it has emerged as an area of unusual bipartisan agreement amid partisan sniping over Syrian refugees and President Barack Obama's larger anti-terror strategy. Most of the Paris attackers were citizens of Belgium and France, countries that participate in the visa waiver program.
"A radical with a French passport or a Belgian passport can get on a plane in Brussels or Paris today and come to America no questions asked, be here for 90 days, without us knowing any better," House Speaker Paul Ryan said Monday on The Big AM 1380, a radio station in Janesville, Wisconsin.
The House bill is backed by the White House. But GOP lawmakers say that Congress will also take a wider look at U.S. visa programs and policies, including scrutinizing the K-1 fiancée visa that was used by Tashfeen Malik, the shooter in the San Bernardino terror attacks.
"This can't be the end of it," said GOP Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan, the legislation's author. Obama, too, called in his Oval Office address Sunday night for a new look at the fiancée visa.
Visa waiver travelers are already required to undergo counterterror screening through an electronic system maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. But the program has been used on at least a few occasions in the past by terrorist plotters, including Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who attempted to ignite a bomb while flying from Paris to Miami in December 2001. Reid used a British passport to board that American Airlines flight without a visa, according to a Homeland Security Department Office of Inspector General report from 2004.
Miller's bill would make a series of changes to add security, including:
— Nationals of Syria, Iraq and other countries with significant terror activity — or anyone who's traveled to those countries in the previous five years — could not participate in the visa waiver program. Instead if they want to travel to the U.S. they would have to go through the more stringent process of obtaining a visa through an embassy or consulate.
— Countries in the visa waiver program would be required to share counterterrorism information with the United States. If they don't they would be kicked out of the visa waiver program.
— All visa waiver countries would be required to issue "e-passports" with biometric information. Lost and stolen passports must be reported to Interpol.
— All travelers would be checked against Interpol databases.
— U.S. security agencies would be required to conduct more frequent assessments of visa waiver countries to determine whether they pose a high risk to U.S. security, and if so they could be suspended from the program.
With Congress rushing to finish its work for the year, leaders are considering adding Miller's bill to a must-pass year-end spending bill now being completed. In the Senate, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona have offered their own visa waiver bill, but their legislation is opposed by the travel industry because of requirements for biometric screening that industry officials fear could be difficult to enact.
The travel industry supports Miller's bill, saying it strikes a balance that allows a successful program to continue.
Action on the visa waiver program is one of several issues Obama called for Congress to accomplish in his Oval Office speech Sunday night. He also called for an authorization of military force against IS, and for action to ban assault weapons and close what Democrats call a "loophole" that allows people on the no-fly list to buy guns.
Those issues aren't going anywhere in the GOP Congress, though House Democrats pledged Monday to try to use a procedural maneuver to force a vote on blocking people on the terror watch list from buying guns.
An earlier House-passed bill cracking down on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee program also hasn't gone anywhere in the Senate though it's possible some language will be included in the spending bill.