CAPITOL HILL - Amid furor in Washington over the admission of Syrian refugees, senators of both parties say that the easiest path for foreign terrorists to enter the United States is the visa waiver program.
Without visas, nationals from dozens of countries in Europe and elsewhere need only a passport to pass through U.S. customs at airports and other entry points, bypassing the screening process to which visa applicants are subjected.
“Twenty million people each year from 38 countries, including France and Belgium, use the visa waiver program,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. “Terrorists could exploit the program, could go from France to Syria, as 2,000 fighters have done, come back to France, use the visa waiver program and, without any further scrutiny, come into the United States.”
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein has introduced legislation to block visa waivers for foreign nationals who have traveled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years.
“They can still visit,” Feinstein said, “but they need a traditional visa – a process that includes an in-person interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.”
The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who says fears about possible security risks posed by Syrian refugees are overblown.
“If you look at all the gaps in our security situation and the vulnerabilities we have, in my view the refugee program is well down that list [of concerns]. Visa waiver is near the top,” Flake said.
“We absolutely need to tighten up the visa waiver program,” said another Republican, Rob Portman. “There are 5,000 foreign fighters who are from countries with which we have a visa waiver program. It’s a huge problem.”
Not all senators believe a focus on Syrian refugees is misplaced. Republican Ted Cruz, who is running for president, blasted President Obama and others who defend admitting asylum seekers from Syria.
“They are supporting a policy of bringing tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees into this country, knowing full well that we cannot vet them to determine who is coming here to wage jihad,” Cruz said.
The Obama administration insists the screening process for refugees is extensive, multi-layered, and long — lasting up to two years.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said refugees must be vetted as thoroughly as possible, but added: “If a terrorist is going to try to come into this country, they are much more likely to use the loopholes in the visa waiver program instead of waiting two years to go through the refugee screening process.”
Republican Flake said he has yet to decide how he will vote if and when the Senate takes up a bill passed by the House of Representatives to halt the acceptance of Syrian refugees until the vetting process is reviewed and strengthened. But he is optimistic about the chances of advancing legislation to reform the visa waiver program.
“As people look at this and consider what our vulnerabilities are, I am hearing support,” Flake said.