- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2015

Visa waivers are the next likely target for a Congress trying to prevent terrorists from entering the U.S. — and a surprising bipartisan consensus is developing about the need to tighten the laws.

The Obama administration, usually eager to act on its own, says it has reached the limits of its powers and has invited Congress to weigh in and require more scrutiny of travelers from the 38 countries whose citizens don’t need visas to enter the U.S.

Both Democrats and Republicans are offering proposals to fix what one of them, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called the “soft underbelly of our national security policies.”

She and other senators said they are writing a bill that would prevent anyone who has visited Syria or Iraq in the past five years from traveling to the U.S. on a visa waiver and would require those who can use the visa waiver program to have passports with e-chips, which store their biometric data and make it tougher to fool the system.

It’s a major shift from just a few months ago, when lawmakers were talking about adding countries to the Visa Waiver Program, which allows those with passports from trusted nations to enter the U.S. without having to get visas or undergo the stricter scrutiny that accompanies it.

Concerns about the program have grown over the past year. Officials estimate that thousands of Muslims with European passports have traveled to Syria and Iraq to train with the Islamic State group and could take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program to enter the U.S. and carry out terrorist attacks.

The Obama administration took unilateral steps to tighten the rules, requiring more information about visa waiver travelers ahead of time, but it took this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which were perpetrated chiefly by Belgian and French citizens, to push the issue.

France and Belgium are Visa Waiver Program countries as well as U.S. military allies and major trade and diplomatic partners. Other waiver countries and U.S. allies that have contributed a sizable number of “foreign fighters” to Syria and Iraq include Denmark, Australia and Britain.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson signaled a willingness this week to work with Capitol Hill.

“Many in Congress have asked whether legislation would assist in these efforts. The answer is yes,” he said in a statement. “Working with Congress, we can put legislative teeth in our existing enhancements, and possibly make others.”

Still, the details will matter, and the administration could change its mind. Last year, Mr. Johnson signaled a willingness to work with lawmakers to stem the flow of tens of thousands of children illegally crossing the southwestern border, only the White House backtracked and threatened to veto the bill that passed the House.

A record 20 million travelers were admitted under the Visa Waiver Program in 2013, constituting about a third of all visitors. Travel industry officials estimated that they spent $79 billion on those trips — money that the tourism industry is keen not to lose.

The U.S. Travel Association, an industry group, said there are some limited changes — such as extra screening for those who have visited danger spots and building better watch lists — but warned against going further.

“We understand the political urge to act after the fact to prove that one is ‘on it,’ but we urge Congress to carefully consider how to tweak the VWP to respond to the threat rather than engaging in security theater,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of the association. “Keep calm, and then legislate.”

The House Homeland Security Committee in June approved a bill from Rep. Candice S. Miller, Michigan Republican, that would give Mr. Johnson the power to suspend countries from the Visa Waiver Program if they don’t share enough data about their travelers, and would require Homeland Security to weigh terrorism risks when deciding whether to admit a visa waiver member.

“We do not routinely get the critical information we need to identify and stop foreign fighters bound for the U.S. from our overseas partners in the program,” Ms. Miller said in a statement last week, urging quick action on her bill. She said her bill has the backing of Mr. Johnson and the U.S. Travel Association.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, has signaled that the visa program should be a focus as Congress considers responses to the Paris attacks.

But for many Democrats, the focus on waivers is an alternative to the Republican bill to force stronger checks on the 10,000 Syrian refugees whom Mr. Obama wants to bring into the U.S. this fiscal year.

They are also pushing for changes that would prevent those whose names appear on the FBI’s terrorist watch list from being able to buy guns legally.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Congress should work on those pieces of legislation rather than targeting the 10,000 refugees.

“It is outrageous that we would be slamming the door to mothers and children while we still allow people on the terrorist watch list to walk in the door of a gun store and buy a gun,” she said.

Some Senate Democrats have combined the two issues by writing a bill that would ban those who enter on visa waivers from purchasing firearms in the U.S.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said federal law generally bars foreign visitors from buying guns, but the Justice Department ruled in 2011 that because visa waiver travelers have not technically been admitted to the country on nonimmigrant visas, they aren’t barred.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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