House Votes to Require Visas for Iraq, Syria Travelers

U.S. Visa Waiver Program Scrutinized on Terror Fear
  • Bill aims to boost security after Paris, California attacks
  • Program lets people from 38 countries enter U.S. without visas

The House overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to bar people who have visited Iraq and Syria in the past five years from a program that allows visa-free entry to the U.S.

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. One of the San Bernardino attackers had come to the U.S. on a fiancee visa but didn’t participate in the State Department’s visa waiver program.

"We simply cannot give people from other countries special access to our country if we don’t have all the information we need to ensure they are not a threat to our national security," said bill sponsor Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican. "Obviously the world is a very different place" than when the visa waiver program was created, she said.

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. All 19 votes against the bill Tuesday came from Democrats.

The waiver program allows visa-free entry to the U.S. for citizens of 38 countries, including much of Europe. 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 programs, which Republicans in Congress have sought to curb.

38 Countries

The House bill would require passport-holders of the 38 countries to get a visa to enter the U.S. if they have recently visited Iraq or other countries with significant terrorist activity. Also denied waivers would be nationals of those countries who hold a passport from one of the visa waiver nations.

The measure would require countries participating in the visa waiver program to check travelers against Interpol databases to determine whether they are wanted by law-enforcement agencies based on ties to terrorism or criminal activity.

To prevent falsification of passports, the House legislation would require all 38 countries to issue what it calls “e-passports,” containing biometric information. The bill would require countries to be able to confirm that such documents are legitimate when they are scanned.

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.

Senators Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, and Feinstein have introduced separate legislation in the Senate.

Biometric Information

Unlike the House bill, the Senate plan would require travelers under the visa waiver program to provide biometric information before traveling to the U.S. and force airlines to provide information on visa-waiver passengers “as soon as practicable” before arriving at a port of entry, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Government legislative analyst Michael Smallberg. It would increase the fee charged to applicants using the Department of Homeland Security’s electronic authorization system.

The Senate bill hasn’t been scheduled for a floor vote. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, said Monday he expected some changes to the visa waiver program would be included in government-spending legislation being negotiated by lawmakers.

On the House proposal, Burr has said he wants to hear from immigration agencies about the practicality of requiring participating foreign countries to include biometric information in their passports. Some countries may not be able to meet such a requirement, he said.

Congress should tread carefully when changing the visa waiver program because of “the tourism dollars that ride on that,” he said in an interview.

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