Chuck Schumer (c) speaks beside Senate Minority Leader Democrat Harry Reid (right) and Democratic Senator from Connecticut Richard Blumenthal (l) at a news conference on the visa waiver program on Thursday. — European Pressphoto Agency
Senate Democrats, seeking to head off legislation to halt and overhaul a program to take in Syrian and Iraqi refugees , are focusing instead on tightening a program that makes it easier for foreigners to travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa.
The visa waiver program allows foreign citizens of 38 countries to enter the U.S. for as long as 90 days without a visa, thereby avoiding an in-person interview at an embassy or consulate. At least 19 million foreign nationals enter the U.S. each year through the visa waiver program.
The program is under scrutiny following the Paris terror attacks over concerns that it could be a weak spot in the security system. Islamic State operative Abdelhamid Abaaoud , suspected of organizing the Paris attacks, was a citizen of Belgium, which participates in the visa-waiver program. Richard Reid, a British citizen who is in prison for attempting to blow up a plane flying to the U.S. with a bomb in his shoe, is a citizen of the U.K., which also participates.
“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 Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Senate Democrats are developing legislation to tighten the program, including by barring anyone who has traveled to Syria or Iraq within the last five years from coming to the U.S. through the visa waiver program. Such travelers would have to obtain a visa and go through the traditional in-person interview. The legislation would also require all foreign citizens traveling to the U.S. through the program to have a passport with an electronic chip to store biometric data such as fingerprints.
Syrian refugees seeking to enter the U.S. face extensive vetting and a very long waiting period