The House voted 407-19 Tuesday to tighten the Visa Waiver Program that lets people from certain countries travel to the United States without first obtaining a visa – a reaction to fear of terrorism, particularly given the roles of French and Belgian nationals in last month’s Paris attacks.
The bill would require visas for anyone who’s been in Iraq or Syria in the previous five years; exceptions are made for official government visits and military service. Countries in the visa waiver program would also be required to share counterterror information with the U.S. or face expulsion from the program. All travelers would be checked against Interpol databases, and visa waiver countries would be required to issue “e-passports” with biometric information.
Farr this evening said the bill “casts too wide a net to be effective. Throwing anyone who travels to Syria or Iraq into the same category as suspected terrorists won’t help us catch the bad guys but it will harm humanitarian efforts there. Investing in better human intel is how we will stop them, not by disrupting tourist travel to the United States.”
Honda went into more detail, noting that although he strongly supports the need for increased security in the Visa Waiver Program, he voted against this bill “because it unjustly targets individuals based on their nationality.”
He said the program, used by 20 million people per year from 38 countries, is far less secure than the two-year screening process to which refugees are subjected, and needs to be improved. He said he supports some parts of this bill, including requiring all travelers to be checked against INTERPOL databases, using fraud-resistant e-passports with biometric information to protect against false identities, and strengthening background check procedures and information-sharing.
“I cannot, however, vote for a bill that categorically bars access to the Visa Waiver Program for dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Iran and people who have traveled in the last 5 years to Iraq and Syria, including humanitarian workers,” Honda said. “Under this bill, a French citizen of Syrian descent who has never been to Syria would still fall into this blanket category. Since the Visa Waiver Program functions on reciprocity, I am also concerned that this bill will trigger restrictions from other countries on travel for Iraqi, Syrian, Sudanese, and Iranian Americans.”
“I reject the stereotype that Arabs and Muslims are terrorists and I strongly oppose the targeting of people from these specific countries,” he continued. “I know what it is be singled out as a threat and potential enemy due to nationality, despite a lack of evidence and despite being an American citizen. We can and must protect Americans without compromising American values. It is time to refuse wartime hysteria and prejudice based on nationality, and instead show true political leadership.”
UPDATE @ 12:14 P.M. WEDNESDAY: Lee said she shares “the concerns of the ACLU, AILA, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and others that this bill would allow for the discrimination of individuals based on their nationality. We cannot let fear drive us to create bad policies. Congress can and should carefully examine the visa waiver program and I will work to support changes which do not open the door for blanket discrimination.”