Rival parties find common ground in drive to revamp visa waiver program

Congress and the White House are working together to strengthen security following the Paris attacks last month.

Ashley Hopkins/AP
People wait in lines at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in Dallas, Oct. 14. Congress is mulling adding new screening procedures to the visa waiver program that allows foreign visitors from 38 countries to stay in the United States for up to 90 days without securing a visa.

In the wake of last month's terrorist attacks in Paris, Americans have been fiercely divided on how to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the country. Amid contentious debate over risks inherent in welcoming Syrian refugees, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have found some common ground in proposals to reform another pathway into the United States: the visa waiver program.

Currently the visa waiver program allows travelers from 38 approved nations to enter the country for 90 days without securing a visa – a privilege that nearly 20 million visitors to the US take advantage of every year.

But on Tuesday a bipartisan group led by Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona introduced a Senate bill that would require fingerprints and photos for those travelers coming from any of the visa waiver nations.

The Feinstein-Flake bill would deny the visa waiver privilege to anyone who has visited Syria or Iraq in the past five years, underlining US officials fear of possible Islamic State militants entering the US under the waiver program.

The House is also working on bipartisan legislation says majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California. But the House appears to favor stricter changes to the program than the Senate. Speaking for Republicans, Mr. McCarthy advocated for requiring electronic passports for travelers from all countries and removing countries from the waiver program “if they aren’t abiding by requirements.”

The Obama administration already implemented required screenings of passengers against INTERPOL’s lost and stolen passport database in August, but introduced further changes on Monday.

The administration outlined evaluations of waiver countries and terrorist information sharing to be completed by the Departments of Homeland Security and State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The White House also announced it is working with Congress to “provide statutory authority” for changes including improved ability to detect those involved with terrorist organizations, required use of e-passports, and increased information sharing among visa waiver nations.

As bipartisan support exists in both the House and the Senate and the White House is interested in seeing legislation move forward, changes should be passed by the end of the year.

“Surely over the course of the next three weeks, they [Congress] should be able to do something that actually would strengthen our national security," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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