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Publish Date: 
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Roll Call

President Barack Obama will lead a UN Security Council meeting Wednesday to discuss what UN member nations can do to track and deter the growing number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Some of those fighters carry European passports and therefore, under the visa waiver program (VWP), could board a commercial flight from Paris, for example, and enter the United States without the interview and scrutiny required to obtain a visa.

Last week, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, (Twitter: @McCaulPressShop) said his panel is “considering legislation to require visa waiver countries to provide more data and information in exchange for that privilege.”

Two House members, Reps. Scott Perry, R-Pa., (Twitter: @RepScottPerry) and Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, (Twitter: @TulsiPress), want to go further, proposing a bill that would suspend from the visa waiver program “any country that has identified passport holders fighting with Islamic extremist organizations,” including the Islamic State.

Gabbard said it would “close a loophole in our visa process, to prevent possible terrorists from entering the U.S. freely.”

Last week, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before the Homeland Security Committee that all would-be foreign travelers to the United States are checked against a database of known suspected terrorists.

Travelers’ from the 38 visa waiver countries are processed through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

“Everyone who applies for a visa and everyone who seeks to travel here from a visa waiver country through the ESTA program — their information is screened again in that [terrorist suspects] database,” he told the committee.

If enacted and applied to any of the 38 visa waiver countries, the Gabbard-Peters bill could dissuade some non-jihadist travelers from coming to the United States by forcing them to go through the visa application process.

Deterring travel would have economic consequences. According to the U.S. Travel Association, while visiting the United States last year, the more than 19 million travelers entering under the VWP spent $79 billion and supported more than half million American jobs.

“What we support is taking a more measured and thoughtful approach to strengthening the security in the visa waiver program,” said Patricia Rojas-Ungar, vice president of government affairs at the U.S. Travel Association in response to the Gabbard-Peters bill.

“What troubles us is that there may not be a full understanding of the visa waiver program and the benefits to national security that are provided through the stringent requirements for intelligence sharing, passport security, and other safeguards. We’re going to redouble our efforts to help educate policy makers and the public” about the visa waiver program’s security benefits.

This debate is still in its early stages. Much hinges on how well the scrutiny which Olsen described works and on the future travel plans of European jihadist passport holders.