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Zoe L.
Democrat CA 19

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  • Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015

    by Representative Zoe Lofgren

    Posted on 2015-12-08

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    LOFGREN. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

    Mr. Speaker, today we come together to address vulnerabilities in our Visa Waiver Program to make our country safer.

    What is the Visa Waiver Program? It was established long before 9/11. In order for a country to be admitted to the Visa Waiver Program, fewer than 3 percent of its applicants for a visitor visa can be denied. Often, the denial of a visitor's visa has nothing to do with security. Rather, it is frequently based on a judgment of whether the applicant is likely to return to his home country.

    It is fair to say that persons who are poor are often judged to be less likely to return to their home country than a more affluent applicant with extensive financial ties to his or her home. That is the reason why there are no impoverished countries in the Visa Waiver Program.

    Most of Europe, Japan, Singapore, Australia, South Korea, and the like are in the program--38 countries in all. The 38 countries agree to share security information with the United States.

    The Visa Waiver Program also is reciprocal, allowing Americans to travel to these 38 countries without getting a visitor's visa. For these 38 countries, visitors fill out a form in advance that is then checked against databases. An ePassport is required for travel, but no visa. However, at the point of entry, an intending visitor from a visa waiver country can be turned away if he is not found admissible under immigration law. For example, a visa waiver visitor who reveals he intends to study in the United States or to marry and remain in the U.S. will be denied entry at the airport by a Customs and Border Protection officer.

    Mr. Speaker, people who do not reside in these 38 countries can still visit the United States, but they have to obtain a visitor's visa to do so, and this is exactly the same for those who are ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program under this bill.

    The Visa Waiver Program enables millions of tourists and business travelers to come to the U.S. every year for short trips that altogether bring over $190 billion a year in business and tax revenue. This program is important to our economy and the country.

    At the same time, Mr. Speaker, in the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks, we must review this program to make sure it meets our present-day security needs since it was designed prior to 9/11. This bipartisan bill incorporates simple changes to enhance security in the Visa Waiver Program.

    The most important parts of the legislation provide for specific, concrete changes to ensure better information sharing among intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

    {time} 1545 It requires screening of all travelers against INTERPOL databases. It makes it harder to falsify identity by requiring fraud-resistant e- Passports that contain biometric information. It compels U.S. security agencies to conduct more frequent threat assessments of visa waiver countries, something not currently part of the law.

    For those who have traveled to or are nationals of certain high- threat countries, a visa interview, rather than visa-free travel, will be required. These individuals are not barred from traveling to the United States.

    We know that thousands of European citizens have traveled to Syria. Some are there on humanitarian missions, like Doctors Without Borders, and we thank them. Some went to fight with ISIS. The visa interview, conducted by a U.S. consular official, will establish the circumstances of the visit. If you are a German citizen who visited Syria last year, you will have the same visa process that every Israeli, every Pole, every Ethiopian, and every Mexican has. None of us has said it is unreasonable that people in Thailand, India, or Brazil undergo interviews for visitor visas. And this change in the Visa Waiver Program is not unreasonable either.

    This visa waiver legislation stands in stark contrast to the Republican-led refugee bill that was rushed to the floor 3 weeks ago. That ineffective and mean-spirited bill would shut down the U.S. refugee program for Syrians and Iraqis fleeing civil war and the brutality of ISIS. And it does so notwithstanding the fact that refugees are subject to 18 to 24 months of thorough screening before ever setting foot on U.S. soil, a more rigorous process than any other immigrant or traveler to the United States is subject to.

    The refugee bill does absolutely nothing to make us safer, and it is a betrayal of our values. It would have us turn our back on refugee women and children and on our proud history as a country that provides safe haven to the world's most vulnerable. I will continue to do everything in my power to see that it never becomes law.

    While the refugee bill showed our country and this body at its worst, today's bill makes sensible improvements to the security of the Visa Waiver Program. I thank my colleagues for working with me and the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and the White House to craft this targeted legislation. I strongly urge its support.

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