US House passes bill to tighten visa waiver program

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

House votes 407-19 to tighten travel controls, especially from Iraq and Syria.

As Republicans squabble over Donald Trump’s controversial proposal to bar all Muslims from traveling to the United States, the House voted to restrict the visa waiver program that currently permits roughly 20 million people to enter the country annually. House easily passed legislation Tuesday proposed by a Republican congresswoman from Michigan to tighten rules on 38 countries whose citizens can visit the U.S. without a visa and restricting travel by those who have visited Syria or Iraq or are dual citizens of those nations. But a strong showing in the House could put momentum behind efforts to include visa waiver legislation in the omnibus spending package – a must-pass bill that lawmakers are currently trying to finalize before the current government spending bill expires on Friday.

The House measure seeks to prevent anyone who has traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan since March 1, 2011 – the start of the Syrian civil war – from taking advantage of the waiver program, requiring instead that they submit to the traditional visa approval process, which requires an in-person application interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. John Conyers of Detroit, a civil rights icon and ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called the bill “discriminatory” and said its positive aspects were outweighed by “anything in our laws that judges individuals based on their nationality rather than their character.” Reps. Southeastern Michigan is home to some of the largest Arab-American communities in the nation and, since 2013, the state has been the arrival point for more Syrian and Iraqi refugees than all but one or two states in the nation. The proposal was drafted by a task force of Republican committee chairmen, who have been working on a roster of proposals to respond to the Paris terror attacks by stepping up security measures at home and abroad.

But in the aftermath of last month’s attacks in Paris, there have been efforts to slow the flow of foreign nationals into the U.S. because of fears terrorists could try to infiltrate the country. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “I think most people will take a look at this bill and say, this is probably the kind of place we can go to bipartisanly.” The House also voted in recent weeks on a measure — which President Barack Obama has said he will veto — which would virtually halt resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq in the U.S.

The White House appeared ready to accept it, having already announced changes to the program to gather information on travelers who may have visited countries connected to terrorism. It also would add terrorism to the list of risk factors for which U.S. officials may stop someone from entering the country and require the Department of Homeland Security to suspend countries’ participation if they don’t meet requirements. Conyers said he understood some could still get visas but expressed a belief that by subjecting anyone to increased questioning and scrutiny because of their nationalities a line was being crossed.

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