As House votes to restrict visa waivers, polls find support for new limits

The House voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to limit a program that allows citizens of 38 countries to enter the US without a visa, reflecting the support of just over half of Americans in a recent poll.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California speaks with a reporter following a closed-door GOP caucus meeting at the Republican National Headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. Invoking the Paris terror attacks, House lawmakers pushed toward a vote Tuesday on legislation tightening controls on travel to the U.S. and requiring visas for anyone who's been in Iraq or Syria in the previous five years. 'You have more than 5,000 individuals that have Western passports in this program that have gone to Iraq or Syria in the last five years,' said McCarthy. 'Those are gaps that we need to fix.'

As lawmakers in the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to limit a visa waiver program that lets citizens of 38 countries come to the United States without a visa for up to 90 days, a new poll finds just over half of Americans worry about consequences of immigration from the Middle East.

On Tuesday, the House voted 407-19 to require anyone who has been in Iraq and Syria in the last five years to obtain a visa before entering the US, along with citizens of those countries and any other nation that is deemed to be a terrorist hotspot.

The move comes as pressure mounts on lawmakers to respond to a series of terrorist attacks linked to the Islamic State militant group, including a mass shooting in San Bernadino, Calif., by a couple where the wife – who had reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State – had entered the country on a so-called fiancée visa. The recent attacks in Paris, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, were carried out by citizens of Belgium and France, which are included in the US visa waiver program.

These attacks have sparked something of a national soul-search as lawmakers and American citizens try to reconcile the nation's history of being a welcoming nation to immigrants with fears of dangerous extremists entering the United States.

“We live in a free and open society,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R) of Michigan, who sponsored the bill, which is also supported by the White House, The Wall Street Journal reported. “But you have the enemies of freedom who are using our freedoms against us. We have to think clearly about what we can do to mitigate any vulnerability that we have.”

Overall, Americans seem to support efforts to curb immigration from the Middle East, with 54 percent of those in a new Associated Press-GfK poll saying the US is allowing too many immigrants in from the Middle East, compared to 46 percent agreeing with such a statement about immigrants from Latin America.

But unlike the House’s proposal, which received bipartisan support, the poll finds a sharper divide in terms of support for proposals like those of presidential candidate Donald Trump, who controversially called for a sweeping ban on Muslims entering the US.

There are divides along racial and age lines, with 59 percent of white people saying levels of immigration from the Middle East were too high, compared to 43 percent of non-whites, while efforts to curb immigration from the region were favored by Republicans who identified with the Tea Party than those who did not.

“The poll indicates that Trump's rhetoric, before he proposed the sweeping prohibition on Muslims, might appeal to fears about immigration from the Middle East shared by many Americans. It also points to a risk of alienating some groups, such as younger Americans, non-whites, and some less conservative Republicans,” the AP noted.

Under the proposal approved by House members, countries in the visa waiver program – including many European nations – would be required to share counterterrorism information with the US or face expulsion from the program, as well as provide “e-passports,” which contain biometric information similar to a US passport for all citizens seeking to come to the US.

Travelers from all countries, including those outside the visa waiver program, would be checked against an Interpol database when entering the US.

Lawmakers appear to be taking a piecemeal approach to addressing questions about links between visa programs and the threat of terrorism, separately looking into the fiancée visa program that admitted Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernardino shooter, while other efforts to curb the intake of Syrian refugees in the US have earned the ire of the White House.

In the recent poll, 41 percent of Americans said the US has a moral duty to offer asylum to people seeking entry to escape violence or political persecution, while 55 percent disagreed. The response largely fell along party lines.

Currently, some 20 million visitors come to the US each year under the visa waiver provision after being screened by the Department of Homeland Security. The White House recently announced improvements to the screening process before lawmakers voted on overhauling the visa waiver program.

Proponents of curtailing the program point to its use by people planning terrorist attacks, such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, who boarded a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001 without a visa and attempted to set off a bomb.

“You have more than 5,000 individuals that have Western passports in this program that have gone to Iraq or Syria in the last five years,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California, said. “Those are gaps that we need to fix.”

But Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minneapolis, the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, who has previously described Muslims as “scapegoat du jour,” criticized the House bill, saying it was overly broad in curtailing visa waivers from all Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

The program should also provide more protections for visiting researchers and journalists, he said. It currently includes exceptions for official military and government visits.

“Our focus should be on terrorism, not just country or origin," Representative Ellison said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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