The White House and Congressmen from both political divides have temporarily set aside their political differences to pursue a common goal of strengthening the nation’s homeland security system, with their attention primed on the visa scheme which makes it easy for foreign travellers to enter the US. This follows the recent Paris terrorist attack, carried out by Islamic State (ISIS) agent, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was a Belgian citizen.
The spate of devastating terrorist attacks has also hit Belgium and Denmark, amid reports that up to 5,000 EU nationals have signed up as ‘foreign fighters’ to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Belgium is one of 38 countries, including 23 from the EU, whose nationals can obtain an ESTA visa within 72 hours, under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), to visit the US for as long as 90 days. Democrats and Republicans in the US Legislature are worried that terrorists with dual citizenship, like Abdelhamid Abaaoud, could take advantage of the lax ESTA scheme to gain easy entry into the US and wreak havoc.
The push to review the visa waiver programme is led by prominent Democratic California Senator, Dianne Feinstein, who called the visa-free travel scheme the “Achilles’ heel of America.”
She is working closely with Republican Arizona Senator, Jeff Flake, on a draft bill that would exclude anyone who has visited Syria or Iraq within the past five years, from the visa waiver programme, even if they are originally from an eligible country. Those travellers would have to go through the stringent visa application process and face the traditional US consular interview in their country of residence.
The proposed legislation by Senators Feinstein and Flake would also make it mandatory for all foreign travellers under the VWP to have a electronic passport with an embedded chip to store biometric data such as fingerprints.
Under the VWP, 19 million visitors enter the US each year for business or tourism, which has boosted the US economy since the scheme was launched in 1986.
But Ms Feinstein said that in spite of its significance to US business and the tourism industry, the visa waiver programme was the “the soft underbelly of our national security policies”.
Another Congressman in the forefront of drafting sweeping changes to the visa-free programme is Republican, Candice Miller, whose proposal will empower the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to suspend a country’s eligibility in the scheme, if it refuses to share foreign travel and terrorism information with the US. “We have to look at our current systems and how terrorists are exploiting our freedoms”, she said in an interview.
Republican Senator Dan Coats is introducing a similar legislation to Miller. His proposal will require Homeland Security to review and improve on the programme and, where necessary, terminate the VWP agreement with any country which does not cooperate with the US on travel and terrorism information-sharing.
It is not yet certain whose draft bill for the proposed changes to the visa waiver programme will be adopted by the whole House, or whether key elements from each draft will be combined to produce an entire new legislation with similar but integrated features. What is certain is that the both Democrats and Republicans stand united with the White House on the need to introduce new rules to the VWP scheme which will block all security loopholes that the programme exposes.
Ms Feinstein’s legislative proposal has the backing of the DHS, which is mostly responsible for enforcement of US counter-terrorist and border control policies.
A DHS official, who wishes to remain anonymous, expressed concerns to the EU Observer about the high number of countries on the visa waiver list: “If European foreign fighters come back, they could travel here on visa-waiver”, he argued.
US Homeland Security was particularly worried that the wife of one of the Charlie Hebdo magazine attackers in France, who is wanted for being an accomplice to the terror act, easily maneuvered her way through EU’s weak internal security system, quickly crossing from France, via Spain, to Syria.
It also observes that Vilvoorde, a Brussels suburb a short distance from EU institutions, is the favourite hub of foreign terrorists in Europe to meet and strategise on their next move. It has therefore asked the EU to strengthen its internal security checks by adopting a Passenger Name Records (PNR) programme and reviewing provisions in its passport-free Schengen area.
PNR obliges airlines to submit passengers’ data, such as phone numbers or credit card details, which will strengthen inter-border security checks and isolate people with links to known terrorist groups or suspects. The DHS further said security agencies and intelligence services in EU member states should share more intelligence to tighten the noose on terror suspects roaming freely on the continent.
Political groups in the EU parliament are hoping to pass PNR legislation by 2016, but officials are also analyzing the details to ensure individual privacy rights are not violated. It is also looking to amend its Schengen rules to integrate more security checks in travel documents.
“If you have intel, you need to get it to operators who can do something with it,” the DHS official said.
To become law, the draft legislation will pass the scrutiny of both legislative chambers of the US Congress before being passed on to President Obama to assent his signature. Early permutations indicate the bill will successfully sail through these stages within a short time.
Firstly, Feinstein, the lead figure in the push for controversial changes in the VWP scheme, wields considerable influence in Congress as chair of the Senate’s intelligence oversight committee. Secondly, the Republicans outnumber their Democratic counterparts in Congress and are known security hawks, so there is a common ground and both divides of party legislators will very likely have a consensus favouring the bill.
The general sentiment in the White House indicates it is pro-change to the current VWP scheme. It considers ISIS and any idea of foreign fighters from EU countries joining them, as the biggest global threat and recently called a summit on countering violent extremism.