House Republicans unveiled a bipartisan bill on Thursday that overhauls a program that allows people to travel to the United States without a visa in response to the terror attacks by ISIS in Paris last month.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas noted that his panel found there are 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 different countries, and that 5,000 of those had Western passports and had traveled to Iraq or Syria.
Some of the Paris attackers held Western passports and “could have entered the United States without a visa,” he said.
“That’s why this legislation is so important,” McCaul said. “It will strengthen the visa waiver program, not abolish it.”
The current program, in which 38 countries participate with the U.S., is designed to encourage tourism, and permits those to travel back and forth for limited visits. But some worry it could be exploited by those plotting attacks.
The legislation requires that nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran or the Sudan, or those who’ve visited those countries since 2011, not get a waiver to travel to the United States without a visa.
Instead individuals from designated countries will have to be vetted through a more rigorous process. It requires those countries who participate in the visa waiver program to share counterterrorism information. If they don’t it empowers the Department of Homeland Security to eliminate any country from the program.
The proposal also enhances screening, requiring individuals be checked against INTERPOL databases and determine if any record of an individual is being looked at for criminal activity. It beefs up efforts to detect passport fraud involving electronic documents.
This latest proposal came out of the House GOP’s terrorism task force, but this one is likely to get the backing of the White House.
Last month, the House passed a bill requiring that the Secretary of Homeland Security certify any refugees from Syria and Iraq don’t pose any security risk. President Barack Obama and many Democrats criticized the bill as unfairly targeting those fleeing war, and Senate Democrats have vowed to block it.
The House will vote on the bill on Tuesday and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy predicted it would garner a large bipartisan vote. But given the time crunch before the end of the year, some are already pushing to add the measure to the must-pass spending bill Congress needs to approve by the end of next week.
McCarthy didn’t rule out attaching the visa waiver bill, saying, “I want this bill to become law – any avenue for it to become law as fast as possible we’ll take.”