Posted by Eddie Bejarano on December 07, 2015 in Blog

In the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, France, Congress has introduced, and in some cases voted on, several important bills regarding Syrian refugees, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and U.S. national security. The most significant bills are H.R.4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015, H.R.158, Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015, S.2300, the American Security against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015, a bill identical to H.R.4038, and S. 2337, the Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act. These 4 bills are significant legislative efforts that, if implemented, would fundamentally alter the U.S. refugee admission program and the VWP. 

Following the attacks in Paris, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX-10) introduced H.R.4038 (the House version of the American SAFE Act) on November 17, 2015 and Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) introduced S.2300 (the Senate version of the American SAFE Act) on November 18,2015. While both versions of the American SAFE Act of 2015 claim to enhance our national security, in actuality they tastelessly take advantage of the current climate of fear to enforce unreasonable security requirements on the admission of Syrian refugees into our country.

Specifically, the two bills would halt the admittance of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the U.S. unless the FBI Director certifies the background investigation of each refugee and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, along with the FBI Director and the Director of National Intelligence, certifies to Congress that each refugee is not a security threat to the United States. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General would need to independently assess the refugee approvals. As President Obama declared, this bill adds an untenable certification process from the directors of multiple federal agencies to an already stringent security screening process.

Since their introduction, the Senate version of the American SAFE Act has been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, and the House version was passed in the House after a 289-137 vote on November 19, 2015. With its passage, the House American SAFE Act has been sent to the Senate for consideration but it is not clear if or when the bill will reach the Senate floor. 

The Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act (S.2337) was introduced late last month, while the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act (H.R.158) was introduced in January of this year but has acquired renewed interest in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. These bills seek to shore up security vulnerabilities in the VWP. Under the VWP, about 20 million people from 38 partner countries are permitted to travel to the U.S. each year without a visa. Government officials are fearful that European citizens, who come from nations that participate in the VWP and who have travelled to Syria, Iraq, and other countries with a significant presence of terrorist organizations in the last 5 years, will use this program to easily gain entry to the U.S. to carry out an attack. 

These bills seek to address the security gaps in this program by requiring individuals who have traveled to Syria and Iraq in the past five years to go through the traditional visa process, requiring biometric data to be provided by a foreign nation prior to travel to the United States using the VWP, requiring all Visa Waiver Program travelers to have electronic passports within 90 days of enactment, increasing information and intelligence sharing between the U.S. and VWP countries, and requiring completion of a federal air marshal agreement. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Jeff Fake (R-AZ) introduced the Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act in the Senate while Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI-10) introduced the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act in the House. Both pieces of legislation are seen as bipartisan bills that will likely advance through both the House and Senate.

According to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-23), the House will consider, and pass, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act this week. Meanwhile, the destinies of House and Senate versions of the American SAFE Act and the Senate’s Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act remain unknown. While some Republicans would rather see the House version of the American SAFE Act signed into law, that is unlikely to happen given that Senate Democrats have vowed to filibuster the bill and President Obama has threatened to veto it, should it reach his desk. Some reports suggest that Republicans have attempted to attach the House version of the American Safe Act to a must-pass spending bill, but Democrats rejected initial forms of the spending bill due to the number of conservative provisions that Republican members are trying to force into it, including H.R.4038.

It seems increasingly likely that the Senate and House Visa Waiver Program bills will pass both chambers, despite growing concerns that these bills will negatively impact individuals like aid workers and journalist, who use the VWP for work related purposes. As we enter the 2016 election year, national security is increasingly becoming one of the most important issues for American voters. With this in mind, both Democrats and Republicans, in the Senate and House, will be seeking to pass legislation that strengthens U.S. national security. However, whether all these provisions do that or not remains in question.