Expansion of visa waiver program raises security fears (The Washington Times)

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  • March 17, 2015
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Congress is considering the expansion of a visa waiver program that would let people from more countries travel to the U.S. freely, despite security concerns and proposals that those countries include nations that support the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State.
The Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel Act, reintroduced Tuesday by Reps. Joe Heck, Nevada Republican, and Mike Quigley, Illinois Democrat, on Tuesday, would let lawmakers expand the list of 38 countries whose citizens can visit the U.S. without a visa to include countries like Argentina, Brazil, Croatia and Israel, among others.
The bill requires the State Department report to Congress on whether program participants are meeting security standards, said Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Mr. Heck.
State Department officials are not currently obligated to ensure that those security standards are being upheld, Mr. Lemon said.
Those advocating to expand the number of countries allowed to enter the U.S. without a visa say the move will improve the U.S. economy through increased tourism revenue, along with improving U.S. relations with its international allies.
However, some lawmakers are worried expanding the number of countries may create security weaknesses as terrorists in countries like Syria and Iran look to exploit the program by obtaining travel documentation from “friendly” countries to travel visa-free.
“We are trying to understand how necessary the program is economically and what we need to do to make sure that we don’t have vulnerabilities that we’re not really looking at,” said Rep. Candice Miller, Michigan Republican, at a Tuesday hearing of the Homeland subcommittee on border and maritime security.
Following the hearing, Ms. Miller told The Washington Times she intended to consult with Obama administration officials on how to add some of the proposed countries to the program while ensuring that those countries comply with the program rules.
Homeland Security officials must receive the critical intelligence and key tools they need to flag foreign citizens who enter the U.S. through the program, and be able to alter or suspend those people (or countries) in real-time if terror links exists.
Ms. Miller introduced legislation last year that would let the Department of Homeland Security suspend noncompliant countries at will. That is not a part of the proposal being pushed by Mr. Heck and Mr. Quigley.
“We need to really make sure that we’re getting all the information that we need that we get the tools to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to suspend a particular country if necessary,” Ms. Miller said. “And as far as expanding it, I trust that some of those suggestions certainly have merit as well, but that’s something we’ll discuss further with the administration.”
That conversation may come relatively soon.
Former Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, Steve Bucci, asked lawmakers during Tuesday’s hearing to “judiciously” allow those countries willing to fight alongside the U.S. in the Middle East to take part in the program.
But that would potentially open the door for citizens of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – all of whose militaries have been actively involved in war activity against the Islamic State – to visit the U.S. without a visa for less than 90 days.
Sen. Tim Kaine, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Times on Tuesday that he had doubts about extending the visa waiver program to allies participating in the multinational coalition fighting the Islamic State.
“I don’t know if being a member of the coalition in of itself should convey that you can be part of the visa waiver program,” the Virginia Democrat said. “I think we need to analyze and make sure that these are countries that are treating American tourists fairly.”
For example 19 of the 20 planned Sept. 11 hijackers were from nations whose governments and militaries are friendly to the U.S. – mostly Saudi Arabia, but also Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
Ms. Miller said that she was “on a mission” to ensure her bill, which improves the security of the visa waiver program, moves quickly through the legislative pipeline. Subcommittee members hope to “mark it up and bring it to the floor shortly,” she said.
Competing bills, like the one pushed by Mr. Heck and Mr. Quigley, along with Senate deliberation on the program, may slow any changes to the current program.