House defies Obama on Syrian refugees, as larger threat emerges

While the White House plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees has sparked controversy, lawmakers say that loopholes in the 'visa waiver' program pose a far more serious concern.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin holds a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. Speaker Ryan said that the Syrian refugee bill would be the first of many on security and travel issues.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, Republicans and Democrats have been loudly fighting over the president’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees – with the House on Thursday strongly passing a bill, 289 to 137, to essentially pause the plan, defying the president’s veto threat.

Despite a strong push from the White House, 47 House Democrats sided with Republicans, adding extra layers of scrutiny to a vetting process for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. That's enough to override a veto, although Senate Democrats say they’ll never let it get that far.

But even as the parties jousted over vetting of refugees, a more bipartisan approach about a far greater concern began to take shape. 

Lawmakers from both parties are pointing out a serious security gap in terrorist travel – loopholes in America's “visa waiver” program. The program allows passport holders from 38 countries, including France and Belgium, to enter the United States without a visa and stay for 90 days – a program affecting some 20 million travelers a year.

“If a terrorist is going to try to come into this country, they’re much more likely to use loopholes in the visa waiver program to do it, instead of waiting two years to go through the refugee screening process,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York on Thursday. He and Senate Democrats announced plans to introduce a bipartisan visa-waiver reform bill after Thanksgiving.

The vetting process for refugees is not 100 percent risk free, FBI Director James Comey has testified. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to check the record or identity of a refugee through some traditional measures, such as a neighbor, employer, or biometric information located back in Syria.

That’s one reason why House Republicans crafted a bill to add a layer of FBI background checks for Syrian and Iraqi refugees and certification from three agency heads that these refugees do not pose a threat. That will have the effect of pausing the program while the changes are made.

The administration says its vetting is robust – beginning with interviews and the collection of biometric data by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Another screening and biometric checking process is repeated in person by US officials – taking 18 to 24 months.

The White House plans to accept 10,000 refugees by next October. Those accepted are almost exclusively older people, women, and children.

Compare that to the expedited visa-waiver program, which brings 20 million visitors to the US each year for tourist and business travel. The waiver for a special entry visa covers most of the European countries, Chile, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. Passport holders are screened, but minimally. For instance, there's no requirement for an in-person interview.

The issue is of particular concern now because of foreign fighters traveling to Syria or Iraq for training, then returning to home countries covered by the visa-waiver program. Foreign fighters could conceivably use the visa-waiver program to then get to the US.

It’s estimated that more than 20,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria to fight – 3,400 coming from the West, according to testimony by Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, who appeared at a House hearing on refugees on Thursday. According to Mr. Jones, 200 Americans have traveled – or attempted to travel – to Syria for the fight against the Assad regime.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, calls the visa waiver program “the soft underbelly” of America’s national security policies. Senator Feinstein is the ranking member on the Senate intelligence committee and the lead co-sponsor of the visa-waiver reform bill. Its Republican co-sponsor is Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The bill would block anyone who has traveled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years from coming to the United States on the visa-waiver program. They could still visit, but they would need to get a visa that requires an in-person interview at an embassy or US consulate.

The bill would also require additional information from program participants before they leave for the US, such as fingerprints and photographs. People using the program would have to carry a passport with an electronic chip that stores their biometric data. Chip passports are harder to tamper with. Feinstein held hers up to reporters.

“Considering there are 45 million lost or stolen travel documents on the global black market today, many of them passports, it’s clear we need to reform the program,” the senator said.

When asked about her bill, Republican intelligence committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said he would have to see the details. But earlier this week, he too, expressed great concern about the program, telling reporters that – from a threat standpoint – it was more troubling than the refugee vetting issue.

“Were I in Europe already, and I wanted to go to the United States and I was not on a watch list or a no-fly list and I wanted to get there, the likelihood is I’d use the visa waiver program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee,” the North Carolina Republican said.

It’s not clear what might eventually pass Congress on this issue, but on the House side, a bipartisan task force on the Committee on Homeland Security recently identified it as a problem and made recommendations, mostly related to reporting and information-sharing by participating countries.

Chairman Michael McCaul (R) of Texas told reporters on Wednesday that his committee would be looking at visa-waiver legislation.

Not everybody thinks tightening these provisions is a great idea. Lawmakers from tourist states are particularly concerned that restrictions will hurt their states.

Senator Feinstein also highlighted a bill to ban the sale of explosives or firearms if the purchaser is on the FBI’s terrorist watch-list.

She cited a Government Accountability Study showing that from 2004 to 2014, more than 90 percent of the 2,233 people on the FBI’s terror-watch list who went through gun-buying background checks passed the check. They likely went on to purchase a firearm or explosives.

“If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun,” she told reporters.

Feinstein has no Republican co-sponsors for that bill, but Rep. Peter King (R) of New York has introduced a companion bill in the House.

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