U.S. House Votes to Require Visas for Iraq, Syria Travelers

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

House tightens controls on visa-free travel to US.

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. 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 late Tuesday, would institute a series of changes, including requiring participating countries to check travelers against Interpol databases to determine whether they are wanted by law enforcement agencies based on ties to terrorism or criminal activity. 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. Backing for the other security bill passed in the house, imposing tough new screening requirements on refugees from Syria and Iraq, was far more partisan.

To prevent falsification of passports, the measure would require all 38 countries to issue what it calls “e-passports” containing biometric information. 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.

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. The senate has not scheduled a vote on either measure, and both could be included in a $1-trillion spending bill that congress must pass in the next few days in order to keep the government open. 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.

A Senate bill with similar reforms has been introduced, and Obama, while not specifically backing the House bill, called for visa waiver reforms during a speech on terrorism Sunday. 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.

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. 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.

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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