House passes visa waiver reform bill with strong bipartisan support

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Civil liberties groups slam Obama-backed visa waiver changes.

WASHINGTON—The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed legislation to limit certain travel privileges granted to citizens of 38 friendly foreign countries, the first step in what lawmakers expect will be a larger response to an evolving terrorist threat.WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to require more information sharing among 38 countries where travelers don’t need visas to visit the U.S., and to scrutinize those travelers more closely if they have recently traveled to Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan.The woman involved in last Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., entered the United States with a K-1 visa – also known as a “fiancé visa,” raising questions on whether the vetting process is extensive enough to detect people who might be harboring anti-American sentiments. The bill, which passed 407-19, is supported by the White House and is expected to be wrapped into a must-pass spending bill and become law by year’s end.

Programs for welcoming foreign nationals into the country have been under heightened scrutiny following the deaths of 130 people in the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the National Iranian American Council’s lobbying arm all have come out this week against a House bill that curbs the visa waiver program. Under the bill, the U.S. government also could suspend from the program any country that failed to provide terrorism-related information to the U.S. in a timely manner.

Travelers would also have to have electronic passports like those already issued in the U.S. to prevent fraud. “We live in a free and open society,” said Rep. But the FBI’s announcement that the shooters who killed 14 people after storming a health department Christmas party at a facility for developmentally disabled individuals had been radicalized for “quite some time” has prompted officials to take a critical look at the K-1 visa program as well.

The bill also would require visa-waiver countries to adopt passports with electronic chips to confirm the traveler’s identity by April 1, in an effort to reduce fraud. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are reviewing the fiancé visa program “to assess possible program enhancements,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron told the Associated Press. The legislation aims to ensure that countries report lost or stolen passports to Interpol within 24 hours, and to screen all travelers against Interpol databases, to avoid being suspended from the visa-waiver program.

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. Investigators said Friday that the Pakistani-born Malik, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader under an alias account on Facebook just moments before she and her husband, Mr. 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. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., would also enhance the electronic background checks on travelers and authorize an increase in air marshals who fly armed and undercover to thwart hijackings.

Johnson urged the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday to include the visa bill in spending legislation that Congress must still approve for the entire federal government. It’s a rare area of bipartisan agreement after the Obama administration’s fury when the House passed legislation last month cracking down on the Syrian refugee program in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks. Through the standard procedure, applicants are subject to a vetting process that includes at least one in-person interview, fingerprints, checks against US terrorist watch lists and reviews of family members, travel history and places where a person has lived and worked. Because certain countries, such as Iran, do not recognize the foreign citizenship of people whose fathers are nationals of that country, the issue is particularly complicated. Travel Association, supported both the House and Senate versions of the visa-waiver legislation to better identify high-risk travelers and make it harder for extremists to falsify their identities.

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. That provision could target people who do humanitarian work in those countries, the group said. “There are other avenues to strengthen security other than placing blanket exclusion on all countries designated under this bill and groups of people based on their national origin,” the group said in a statement.

Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said the bill is overbroad in stripping visa waiver privileges from all Syrian and Iraqi nationals and said it should include more exceptions for more people, such as journalists and researchers. “Our focus should be on terrorism, not just country or origin,” Ellison said. The ACLU and other groups are urging lawmakers to further narrow the bill to avoid discriminatory measures, with some hoping that the Senate version will be less sweeping.

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