House may move quickly to overhaul visa waiver program

AP News
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Posted: Nov 30, 2015 5:13 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress may move quickly to overhaul a program that allows travel to the U.S. with no visa, something that has come under criticism following the Paris terror attacks.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Monday that he was looking at action before the end of the year. Without legislation "I think the country will be less safe," the California Republican said.

At the same time, the White House announced a series of changes aimed at improving the program, including more terrorism information sharing with other countries.

The so-called visa waiver program lets people from 38 countries visit the U.S. for 90-day stays without obtaining a visa. It has come under scrutiny following the Paris terror attacks since several of the suspected perpetrators were from Belgium and France, which are countries on the list.

McCarthy outlined five changes House Republicans would like to see to the program. They include requiring all countries to issue electronic passports; ensuring that all passengers are screened against a database of lost and stolen passports; and kicking countries out of the visa waiver program if they aren't abiding by requirements.

Changing the visa waiver program appears to have bipartisan support in the House and the Senate and general agreement from the White House. Many lawmakers note that the large scope of the program — it admits some 20 million visitors to the U.S. each year — makes it a potential security concern.

By contrast, the number of Syrian refugees entering the U.S. is much smaller, numbering fewer than 2,500. The House voted earlier this month to crack down on the refugee program, over objections from the White House.

The visa legislation or the Syria refugee legislation could be added to a must-pass year-end spending bill.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., are working on a visa waiver bill they hope to introduce in the Senate this week. It would bar anyone who traveled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years from coming to the U.S. under the visa waiver program.

However, the travel industry is concerned about an approach suggested by Feinstein that would require additional biometric information from travelers before they arrive in the U.S.

"We certainly understand the desire for more and more layers of security but we've got to make sure we don't miss the mark here because the stakes are incredibly high," said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs at the U.S. Travel Association.

The changes announced Monday by the White House are steps that can be taken without congressional approval. They include capturing more information from visa waiver travelers about their past travel to countries constituting a terrorist safe haven, and having the Homeland Security Department work directly with visa waiver countries in helping them screen refugees.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest urged Congress to do more. The administration had been in talks with senators for two weeks and wants a bill "that would enhance our national security without undermining the international connections that are critical to the strength of our economy," Earnest said.

"Congress should pass that legislation before they leave," he said. "We saw Congress a couple of weeks ago pass legislation related to refugees that would not actually do anything to enhance our national security, they were able to take those steps in three or four days. Surely over the course of the next three weeks, they should be able to do something that actually would strengthen our national security."

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Associated Press writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.