‘Fiance visas’ off limits in rush to tighten borders

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

House easily passes curbs to visa waiver program.

WASHINGTON: The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to bar people who have visited Iraq and Syria in the past five years from a programme that allows visa-free entry to the US. LOS ANGELES (AP) — Visas used by foreigners to travel to the United States are getting new scrutiny in the wake of shooting massacres in California and France. The measure, passed 407-19, is part of lawmakers’ efforts to improve domestic security after terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris and 14 in San Bernardino, California. Travelers must submit data through an electronic counterterrorism screening program maintained by the Department of Homeland Security before boarding a plane, but aren’t required to show up at a local consulate and apply for a visa as tourists from other countries must do.

Many conservatives want to add provisions to the omnibus that would bar Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. until tighter vetting restrictions are in place. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has said the measure, H.R. 158, was crafted by House and Senate negotiators with input from members of President Barack Obama’s administration. The bill, which passed 407-19, would institute a series of changes, including the new visa requirement for citizens of Iraq, Syria and any other country deemed a terrorist hotspot, along with anyone who’s traveled to those countries in the previous five years. Even the most conservative GOP lawmakers are hesitant, at least for now, to pursue explicit curbs on the immigration of the future spouses of U.S. citizens. It is one of the smallest visa categories managed by the U.S. — accounting for 0.3 percent of the nearly 10 million visas issued in fiscal year 2014 —and was created to try to root out marriage fraud.

The proposed Bill also contains provisions under which US can remove countries from the visa waiver program if they do not cooperate with law enforcement and the intelligence community. That wariness stands in sharp contrast with the swift pace at which lawmakers moved to restrict the Syrian refugee resettlement program after the Paris terrorist attacks, as well as potential loopholes with the nation’s visa waiver system. Applicants must give at least one in-person interview, fingerprints, be checked against U.S. terrorist watch lists and have their family members and travel and work histories reviewed. As it stands now, individuals from 38 friendly countries, like the United Kingdom and France, don’t need a visa to enter the U.S. under a system known as the visa-waiver program. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and committee Vice Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, have said the visa waivers pose greater security concerns than refugee resettlement programmes, which Republicans in Congress have sought to curb.

But after the shootings in Paris, for which the Islamic State took credit, lawmakers have criticized the program’s relatively lax entry requirements. Like K-1 visa applicants, refugees must submit to in-person interviews overseas and provide their fingerprints and biographical information to U.S. officials. But in past years, the program has been used by would-be terrorists, including “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, who boarded a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001 without a visa and attempted to set off a bomb. To prevent falsification of passports, the House legislation would require all 38 countries to issue what it calls “e-passports,” containing biometric information.

Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” from 9/11, also flew from London to Chicago with a French passport and no visa in February 2001, according to a Homeland Security Inspector General report from 2004. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California has called the measure a “good bill” and Josh Earnest, White House spokesman, said Tuesday that the Obama administration had previously indicated it supports the House measure. “House Democrats and House Republicans have no greater priority than keeping Americans safe,” Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, said while urging support for the measure. “That is not a partisan issue, nor is it a partisan difference,” he said. Her husband, Syed Farook, was a U.S. citizen who carried out the attack at the San Bernardino developmental-disabilities center with Malik, officials said. Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) told reporters before the vote that the measure “ensures security.” The bill, sponsored by Rep. The travel industry, which backs the House bill as a balanced approach, says the Senate bill goes too far in adding new biometric requirements for all visa waiver travelers that might be difficult to enact.

Jeff Flake of Arizona, a key GOP voice on immigration policy who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. “I’m not calling for a halt or a moratorium or anything. If they don’t, the immigrant could be deported. “It would be unprecedented in American history,” Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said of potential limits to immigration based on marriage. “If they were to put significant roadblocks [to fiancé visas], it would be a huge infringement on Americans to marry who they want to.” In fiscal 2014, the U.S. issued 35,925 K-1 visas, while rejecting 618. Officials are careful to say those figures don’t account for all applications that year since many are pending or may have been withdrawn, but the figures do nonetheless suggest a relatively low rejection rate.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports stricter immigration controls, noted that the fiancé visa is rarely ever denied. “Maybe we should be more careful about issuing these visas in this category, too, along with all the others,” wrote David North, a fellow at the center. “Just because someone is entering the country as the beloved of one our citizens should not bring out an automatic rubber stamp of approval.” But any substantial legislative action on fiancé visas appears unlikely at this point.

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