Miller’s visa waiver reform plan gains bipartisan steam

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. House is poised to vote next week on a bill by Michigan Rep. Candice Miller that would tighten security controls in the U.S. visa-waiver program with the aim of preventing would-be terrorists from entering the country undetected.

Miller, R-Harrison Township, first introduced the legislation last Congress. It unanimously passed the Homeland Security Committee in June, but has gained steam since the Paris terror attacks on Nov. 13.

“It’s very, very important we do this ASAP,” Miller said in an interview. “This is something that I’ve been working on for a couple of years. What really has got everything to this point right now is terrorists.”

Since the White House endorsed the bill this week, House leaders are expecting the legislation to pass the chamber with bipartisan support. It’s unclear whether they would send it to the floor as a stand-alone bill or include it as part of a year-end spending package.

“I want this bill to become law. Any avenue for it to become law — whatever it takes,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, said at a Thursday news conference.

The Obama administration has revised the visa-waiver program at least three times since January, including changes that include questioning travelers about whether they’ve recently visited a country labeled a “terrorist safe haven.”

“They have done some things administratively, which are fine but are nowhere near enough,” Miller said. “Terrorists, might self-report (laughs). They might not. Information is key.”

The visa-waiver program was created in 1986 to boost tourism and trade by streamlining the process of visiting the United States. Passport holders from 38 countries may use the reduced-screening system allowing them to visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

“From an economic standpoint, it’s been a huge boon for us, but it’s a much different world now than it was in the ’80s,” Miller said. “We think if we put enough safeguards in it, it actually will increase our security, while at the same time not hindering us economically.”

Miller discusses the legislation in the House Republicans’ weekly address. Her bill would give the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security the discretion to suspend or eliminate a country from the program if that nation fails to continually share counterterrorism and foreign-traveler information with the United States. Under current law, the secretary may only suspend a country for imminent national security threats.

“So many of these countries just don’t screen their travelers thoroughly against Interpol, terrorism and criminal databases, which they need to do,” Miller said.

“Often, when one of these horrific incidents happens in Europe, we find out after the fact that we did not have that person (the perpetrator) on our watch list because, again, that information was not shared with us.”

Program critics note the suspected architect of the Paris attacks was a citizen of Belgium – a participant in the visa-waiver program – and he or others trained by the Islamic State could have potentially traveled to the U.S. via the program.

House leadership incorporated into Miller’s bill recommendations from a counterterrorism task force requiring all travelers using the visa-waiver program to use e-passports with biometric-enabled chips by April 1, and for participating countries to share data on lost or stolen passports with Interpol.

The measure would also disqualify from the program anyone who has traveled to Syria or Iraq within the last five years.

The U.S. Travel Association has embraced Miller’s bill, said Jonathan Grella, the group’s executive vice president of public affairs.

“The congresswoman deserves a lot of credit for having the foresight to want to enhance the visa waiver program,” Grella said. “Very few, if any, bills move on a bipartisan basis, especially at this rate. On all those fronts, it’s very impressive work.”

His association does have concerns about visa-waiver reforms promoted in the Senate by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona. They include a biometrics provision that would require travelers using the program for the first time to have their fingerprints and photograph taken before taking off.

“Strengthening the program will require collecting additional information from travelers before they arrive,” Feinstein said in a statement announcing her bill this week.

But the travel industry says such a requirement would be so costly and burdensome as to render the program obsolete. It could mean either hundreds of airports in other countries would need to install biometric stations to comply, or travelers would have to visit the U.S. consulate before traveling, “just as they would for a visa interview,” Grella said.

“If a visa waiver program becomes equally as expensive and burdensome as visa travel, obviously that renders the program meaningless, at the very least,” he said.

Marc Frey, former director of the visa-waiver program at the Department of Homeland Security, said biometrics are already collected and checked against security databases when visa-waiver travelers arrive at a U.S. port of entry.

“The biometric checking we’re doing today is not resulting in additional identification of otherwise unknown security threats. So, we can assume that, if we collected the biometrics eight hours or eight weeks earlier, it would also not result in additional biometric hits,” said Frey, a consultant to the Travel Association who testified this year before Miller’s subcommittee.

“That’s not enough of a security benefit to make this worthwhile, considering the cost of implementing such a system, the severe impact on international travel, and the impact on relationships with our allies who are part of this program.”

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