In the days after terrorists killed 130 people in coordinated attacks in Paris, lawmakers in Washington rushed to try and suspend the nation’s Syrian refugee program. Now, they’re turning their attention to the U.S. visa-waiver program in the hopes of preventing militants from slipping into the country undetected.
The twin efforts have drawn a night-and-day response from the Obama administration: Whereas the White House aggressively fought the attempt by House Republicans to block the resettlement of refugees from the Middle East, it is eager to see Congress tighten up a program that it views as more vulnerable to infiltration by the Islamic State.
The difference, in the administration’s view, is the security risk. As officials from President Obama on down have pointed out, it would take an ISIS fighter well over a year to enter the U.S. by seeking resettlement as a refugee—a process that is the most stringent for any foreign traveler to the country. “If you are an extremist hell-bent on carrying out an act of violence on American soil, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that you’re going to apply for a program that will take you two years before you can enter the United States,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, on Tuesday.
By contrast, the visa-waiver program allows citizens from any one of 38 countries—including most of Europe—to visit the U.S. for up to three months without being interviewed at an embassy or consulate. Created in 1986, the waiver initiative was designed to promote tourism and business travel by making it easier to visit the U.S. without jumping the bureaucratic hoops needed to get a visa. About 20 million visa-less travelers enter the country each year. “It’s served its purpose economically,” said Representative Candice Miller, a Republican from Michigan. “However, it’s a much different world today, and so I think these terrorists are using our freedoms and vulnerabilities against us. And this we believe is a big vulnerability.”
That’s an assertion that Obama administration officials probably wouldn’t dispute. In the face of the threat posed by ISIS foreign fighters traveling in and out of Iraq and Syria, the Department of Homeland Security has tweaked the rules of the program three times over the last year. While those two countries aren’t partners in the waiver program, the concern is that a citizen of say, Belgium, could have gone to Syria to train with ISIS and traveled to the U.S. after returning to Europe.
The most recent change came on Monday, when the department announced it would begin asking applicants whether they had traveled to countries that constitute “a terrorist safe haven.” Homeland Security officials also said they would accelerate a review of the waiver program and deploy “foreign fighter surge teams” to counter terrorist travel.
Miller said the additional questions on the travel form were a good start, but not enough. “I’m not sure how much self-reporting a terrorist would do,” she said with a chuckle during a phone interview on Tuesday. Miller has written legislation supported by the administration that would allow the government to suspend the participation of countries in the waiver program if they don’t provide the U.S. with enough intelligence or background information on travelers. That bill has languished since it was approved unanimously by the Homeland Security Committee back in June, but after the Paris attacks it may come up for a vote in the next few weeks.
Yet lawmakers in both parties in Congress are eyeing measures that go further than Miller’s bill, and that has the travel industry worried about a politically-driven overreaction that would be costly and damaging to tourism and business. “We’re realistic when it comes to the desire of lawmakers to prove they’re on the case,” said Jonathan Grella, the executive vice president for public affairs at the U.S. Travel Association. “We need to keep calm, and then legislate.”
The trade group is particularly concerned about a bipartisan Senate proposal unveiled Tuesday that would require all first-time travelers through the visa waiver program to use an electronic passport and submit fingerprints and a photograph to security officials before they board a plane or ship to the U.S. Doing so would be costly and cumbersome, industry officials say, because it would require either airports or partner countries to set up offices or kiosks to process travelers in the program. The added bureaucracy could also defeat the whole purpose of the program, which is to expedite travel to the U.S.
“That’s an enormously complex and expensive undertaking, and in practice, is then very little different from what you have to do to get a visa,” said Marc Frey, a former director of the visa-waiver program at DHS who now advises the Travel Association. “It effectively undercuts the entire visa-waiver program if you’re sending these travelers to get fingerprinted.”
Frey told me that the additional biometric data rarely yielded information that security officials weren’t already gaining from the current screening process.
“The practical experience is that we’re not turning up people on a daily basis who are otherwise unknown security threats but we’ve only identified because of biometrics,” he said. The additional requirement, he said, “gives you very little security at enormous cost.”
The politics are turning out to be tricky both for the travel industry and the White House. Unlike in the fight over the refugee program, Republican leaders are not proposing changes to the visa waiver that go far beyond what the administration is advocating. But it is a Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who is leading the push requiring that travelers submit biometric data even if they don’t get a visa. “This issue doesn’t cut cleanly across partisan lines,” Frey said. An aide to the senator noted that her proposal, which is co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jeff Flake, would give the Department of Homeland Security time and flexibility to implement the changes.
The White House hasn’t said whether it supports the Feinstein bill. But in contrast to the heated rhetoric over Syrian refugees, the post-Paris debate over changing the visa waiver program is—so far—shaping up to be far less of a fight.