Congress ready to slap on new travel restrictions to fight terrorism

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press )

Congress and the White House are poised for a rare agreement in the fight against terrorism with legislation that would slap new travel restrictions on foreign visitors to the U.S. who have recently been to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan.

The bill was given added urgency following the San Bernardino terror attack, even though the proposed changes to the 30-year-old visa waiver program would not stop visitors like shooter Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani-born woman who entered the U.S. under a separate fiancee visa program in 2014.

Malik and her American-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, are responsible for the Wednesday attack that killed 14 people and injured 21. Malik and Farook were killed in a shootout with police hours later.


But the visa-waiver bill may be one of the only areas of potential agreement between Obama and Congress as Washington struggles to respond to the shifting terror threat.

The House legislation, hammered out in private talks between the administration and congressional leaders after the Paris terror attacks last month, would ban visa-free entry of citizens from 38 countries, including most of Europe and several U.S. allies in Asia, if they report on a travel application that they have visited any of the four targeted countries since 2011. Instead, those people would have to apply for entry to the U.S. through the traditional visa process.

It would also require all 38 countries participating in the visa-waiver program to share traveler information with the U.S. In the past, some countries have been slow to provide such information, U.S. officials complain, and under the bill, those countries could be kicked out of the program if they fail to comply.

A vote is set for Tuesday in the House, where it is expected to be passed with robust bipartisan support.

“We should put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they’ve traveled to war zones,” President Obama said Sunday in a televised address from the Oval Office. “And we’re working with members of both parties in Congress to do exactly that.”

Even backers of the legislation acknowledge it will not eliminate the risk of terrorists with ties to Islamic State or other militant groups entering the U.S. to launch attacks.

“That terrorists are going to self-report is fantasy,” said one congressional aide who asked for anonymity to discuss the ongoing negotiations. “I would not put my faith and confidence in the self-reporting of bad guys. I would much more put it in the information-sharing of our allies.”

Other than tightening the visa-waiver program, Republicans have generally panned Obama’s response to the potential domestic threat posed by Islamic State. Democrats are proposing a package of bills, including one to stop terror suspects from buying firearms and another to create an Islamic State “czar” to coordinate White House’s efforts to defeat the militant group.

One potential roadblock to passing the visa-waiver bill remains in the Senate, where powerful California Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants even tougher restrictions added to the visa-waiver program.

Feinstein’s approach, drafted with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), requires first-time visitors seeking to come to the U.S. under the visa-waiver program to undergo biometric fingerprint and photograph screening at U.S. embassies or consulates in their home countries, rather than after they arrive at a port of entry in the United States.

Critics say America’s overseas facilities are not staffed up to handle the expected onslaught of what could be thousands of visitors who would need such prescreening.

While the new restrictions are designed to keep out the estimated 5,000 European nationals believed to have joined Islamic State, some worry they might also create problems for innocent citizens, such as Iranian or Iraqi immigrants who have settled in Europe and visited their homelands in recent years.

Feinstein’s proposal is being watched closely by the nation’s tourism industry, which fears tough measures may complicate or reduce travel to the United States.

U.S. Travel Assn. President Roger Dow said in a statement the House bill’s more limited approach would bring “thoughtful solutions that will enhance America’s security,” and it warned against “knee-jerk” restrictions that could harm tourism to the U.S.

The association says 20 million visitors a year --- representing 59% of all overseas visitors -- travel on the visa-waiver program, which grants 90-day stays and is vital to the tourism economy.

The measures would also require all visa-waiver country travelers to use electronic passports with built-in chips carrying their biometric data, a provision the British newspaper The Telegraph warned would cause “transport woes” for up to 5 million Britons who do not yet have them.

“Strengthening visa waiver program requirements would greatly increase the workload for processing visas, which could potentially degrade the quality of all interviews,” Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corp. wrote in a recent column in the Guardian newspaper.

Another outstanding difference between the House and Senate versions concerns which countries are affected. While the House bill also blocks visa-free travel for those who admit to visiting Iran and Sudan, Feinstein’s Senate bill limits the restrictions to Syria and Iraq, and gives the Department of Homeland Security the ability to add countries to the restricted list.

Exceptions to the travel restrictions are allowed in the House proposal for those citizens of visa-waiver countries who visited the four countries while conducting government business or as part of the military. Feinstein’s bill makes no exceptions, requiring all travelers who have visited the restricted countries to go through the traditional visa process.

“Sen. Feinstein is encouraged by the consensus on strengthening the security of the visa-waiver program and will work with her colleagues to get something signed into law,” said an aide to the California senator.

The visa-waiver changes are likely to be attached to a must-pass spending bill to fund government operations that Congress is expected to approve by the end of the week to avoid a federal shutdown.

The surprising coalescence around the need to toughen the visa-waiver program marked a rapid turnaround from just two weeks ago. Following the Paris terror attacks, House Republicans, with support from some House Democrats, quickly passed a bill that would have effectively blocked all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. But after Senate Democrats panned the bill, House GOP leaders almost immediately began refocusing their efforts on the visa-waiver program.

Correspondent Christina Boyle in London contributed to this report.

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