US Visas Get New Scrutiny After California, Paris Attacks

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

House passes visa waiver overhaul with strong bipartisan support.

House lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday tightening controls on visa-free travel and requiring visas for anyone who has been in Iraq or Syria in the previous five years. The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to tighten restrictions on travel to the United States by citizens of 38 nations who are allowed to enter the country without obtaining a visa. Some lawmakers said they also planned to re-examine a visa used by Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani wife accused in the San Bernardino attacks that killed 14 people, to come to the country. 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.

It would also require countries participating in the program to share information with U.S. authorities about suspected terrorists or risk being suspended from the scheme. “This legislation will help close gaping security gaps and improve our ability to stop dangerous individuals before they reach our shores,” said Republican Representative Michael McCaul, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman. The strong vote in the House could put momentum behind efforts to include changes to the program in the omnibus spending package — a must-pass bill that lawmakers are trying to finalize before government funding expires on Friday.

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. 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. Congress has been focused on visa waivers since Paris because some of the militants behind the attacks were Europeans radicalized after visiting Syria. Travel Association, despite initial concerns that Congress would go too far in tightening the waiver program’s security requirements following the Paris terror attacks.

Like K-1 visa applicants, refugees must submit to in-person interviews overseas and provide their fingerprints and biographical information to U.S. officials. Most Democrats have decried Republican attempts to suspend the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees until background check procedures improve, while most Republicans have dismissed Democrat-led attempts to prevent known or suspected terrorists from obtaining a firearm or explosive device. 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.

House Democrats staged a protest Tuesday over a recent rejection of their measure to ban those on the no-fly list from buying guns, forcing a series of floor votes to call attention to the issue and delaying the vote on the waiver program. Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” from 9/11, also flew from London to Chicago with a French passport and novisa in February 2001, according to a Homeland Security Inspector General report from 2004. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, “Today’s bill makes sensible improvements to the security of the visa waiver program.” The Syrian refugee bill, which the administration said was unnecessary because the small number of Syrian refugees are already extensively screened, has not gone anywhere in the Senate and looks unlikely to advance.

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