Paris

Visa Waiver Program Under Attack from Libertarianish Senators

Rand Paul, Jeff Flake want to limit the types of French and European citizens America will let visit without a background check

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Could they have just boarded a plane to New York? If they weren't on a disqualifying watchlist, yes. ||| The Telegraph
The Telegraph

Americans don't spend much time thinking about the three-decade old Visa Waiver program, through which the vast majority of machine-readable-passport-holding citizens from 38 countries (basically Europe + Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan) can travel to the United States for 90 days without a visa. When Americans themselves visit those participating countries without filling out any paperwork, they typically don't dwell on the international negotiations that made such frictionless travel possible.  

But given the national panic this week over the potential terrorist threat of admitting Syrian refugees, it was only a matter of time until people started noticing that, well, each of the perpetrators of the horrific attacks in Paris last Friday could have gotten into the United States through the simple act of buying an airplane ticket (at least, if they were not on disqualifying watchlists). As Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told the Washington Post this week, "I would tell you, from a threat standpoint, I'm probably more concerned with the visa waiver program today…. Were I in Europe already, and I wanted to go the United States, and were I not on a watch list or a no-fly list and I wanted to get there, the likelihood is I would use the visa waiver program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee."   

So today Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are expected to introduce a bill disqualifying from Visa Waiver anyone who has visited Syria and Iraq over the past five years.

"This would not say that they can't get a visa," Flake told the Arizona Republic. "It's simply saying that they would have to get a visa instead of having that requirement waived. And I think that's a prudent thing to do." And Flake, one of the more libertarian-leaning members of the Senate, isn't a refugee alarmist:

"I don't blame governors and others across the country for being concerned about this (refugee) program, partly because the administration has done a very poor job of explaining what kind of vetting process we have," Flake said. "It is thorough and substantial. While you always worry about gaps, of all the things to worry about, this one is down the list quite a bit. Visa waivers are quite closer to the top."

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), meanwhile, wants to scrap Visa Waiver entirely for French citizens, and instead limit visa-less travel to the much more limited sample of those who have already passed through Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program. And he announced Monday that he'd be introducing a bill putting a 30-day delay on would-be Visa Waiver visitors who do not use Global Entry, plus an "immediate moratorium" on refugees from 30 countries with "significant jihadist movement."

"This is not something new for me. I introduced many of these same concepts in the battle over the immigration bill and so I think it's about time. And I think Paris should wake us to the fact that we can't let just anyone come to this country without background checks," Paul said in a conference call, as reported by Politico. "I think the American people are going to call for it….And so I think there's a reasonable chance that we will get a vote on something having to do with the screening and or the barring of refugees from coming to this country."

And it's certainly not just Republicans, libertarianish or otherwise, getting on board. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) told CNN this week that "We need to temporarily suspend this visa waiver program," because "it could just be a matter of hours, before someone travels through these different borders, someone who's become a foreign fighter, who's been fighting in Syria, and ends up here on the United States soil."

The U.S. Travel Association, a lobbying group representing tourism-related businesses, is pushing back, reminding lawmakers that the 20 million people who come to America each year on Visa Waiver tend to do things like spend money ($79 billion in 2013, for example). When the program was going under similar though less intense scrutiny earlier this year, former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff told a congressional panel that "I firmly believe that any withdrawal or departure from the Visa Waiver Program would be a huge mistake….Constructed in a way to powerfully reduce vulnerabilities in our immigration and travel system, it is my belief that the Visa Waiver Program offers significant benefits to U.S. national and economic security and should not be pulled back in a time like this but further evaluated for ways that can strengthen our security and the benefits it may yield."

These arguments may not be enough in a political season such as this. The post-Paris crackdown on immigration is not unlike the spasms in the direction toward gun control in the wake of a mass shooting—it doesn't matter if the proposed solution bears no relevance to the atrocity in question, or whether the enhanced dragnet of government databases would heavily inconvenience and sometimes thwart the rights of perfectly law-abiding humans (including Americans: remember, visa policies are reciprocal). What matters is that action X might save one life, and therefore is worth any cost.

Of all the proposals listed above, the Flake/Feinstein one looks the least objectionable at a glance. But still then, when you imagine those same restrictions being applied on Americans (as they almost certainly would be), you're faced with entire categories of professionals—military service men and women, journalists, NGO employees—who would now no longer be able to travel to Europe visa-free. And their counterparts in Europe will face extra barriers to entry before they can go to Disneyland or visit the Grand Canyon. To which skeptics will retort, what about Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid, and Ramzi Yousef?

The Visa Waiver program has undergone many reforms since 9/11 (this Congressional Research Service paper from 2014 gives a thorough overview), and it's possible that the current bluster will lead to more helpful things, such as better information-sharing between participating governments about their terrorist watchlists. And it's also possible in the current geopolitical climate that the biggest pushes for tightening the security of the system will come not from America but Europe.

All that said, for those of us who have cheerfully participated in post-1989 globalization, traveling and trading and exchanging in ways that contributed to unprecedented peace and prosperity around the globe, weeks like this–after summers like that–make you hope we haven't already passed a high-water mark.

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  1. Yesterday, according to WaPo and the NY Daily News, it’s the terrorist NRA that we need to worry about. Now it’s tourists from European countries. Tomorrow it will be those pesky kids from the Future Farmers of America!

    1. Have you seen how dangerous tractors are? Waiting periods! Background checks!

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  2. With ESTA, DHS is already pre-approving any visa waiver program traveller.

  3. “Of all the proposals listed above, the Flake/Feinstein one looks the least objectionable at a glance. But still…”

    Oh, that’s a relief, for a moment there I thought someone at Reason was endorsing a border security initiative.

    1. Not the Western Roman Empire, that’s for sure.

      1. Alaric the Vandal approves.

  4. But still then, when you imagine those same restrictions being applied on Americans (as they almost certainly would be), you’re faced with entire categories of professionals?military service men and women, journalists, NGO employees?who would now no longer be able to travel to Europe visa-free. And their counterparts in Europe will face extra barriers to entry before they can go to Disneyland or visit the Grand Canyon.

    Well, the injustice of Henri waiting a couple more days before going to Disneyland simply can’t stand. May the streets of America run red with blood before we allow a thing of such vital importance to be taken from us!

    1. military service men and women, journalists, NGO employees

      I can’t work up an outrage over any of these folks being inconvenienced.

      Frankly, if you want people to really not give a shit, tell them journalists and NGOs will be hardest hit.

    2. Transported service personnel generally do not get their passports stamped. This usually only occurs if they are flying commercial or travelling independently.

      So it’s mostly a non-issue for them.

  5. Hmm. The past is just a cartoon in most people’s heads. Lithographs of woodcuts or oil painting and abstracts about some stuff people they don’t know did way back before the stone age. That stuff isnt real. This is the 21st century and none of that stuff applies today or could possibly happen. That is in the past.

    Moslem hordes overrunning Europe? That was like, way back man. It could never happen today.

    The Muslims, on the other hand, don’t live in the 21st century and see things very differently.

    1. No no, you must be misinformed; I’ve been assured that Islam is the religion of peace.

  6. This article needs to be returned for editing. There are no accusations of pants-wetting or shitting.

    1. Matt is to focused on sucking up to the left so he can get more. Face time on MSNBC. Apparently the viewer likes him.

      1. You don’t get on MSNBC because the viewers like you, if that was true they would get a lot better ratings

        You get on MSNBC and all the other media by saying things the owners and managers of MSNBC like to hear.

        1. And clearly that is Matt’s priority. Fucking sad and weak.

  7. “”””All that said, for those of us who have cheerfully participated in post-1989 globalization,”””

    What about those who don’t. Maybe they don’t want to travel to countries filled with Frenchmen or worse, if worse there be?

  8. OMG *swoon* overload

  9. Hey… MAYBE if the politicians whom you generally agree with are in favor of this thing, it’s worth examining why? Like, maybe they’re privy to some information that you’re not and have reached a legitimate conclusion that is actually rational and prudent?

    Nah. It’s just more big government scaremongering. There’s no imaginable reason to be at least a little cautious of people who’ve travelled to Syria and Iraq in the last year or so. Certainly not enough to warrant — gasp — a visa before entering the US. That’s just crazy talk. Such additional scrutiny will likely bring the wheels of the free market to a screeching halt, amirite?

    1. Let ’em all in! Nothing to worry about. Poor refugees .

    2. Hey Chip you forgot all the “tss tss” and “or sumpthin’s.” How’s your mom and all her gentlemen callers lately?

      1. Tss she’s doing pushups with Lamar right now tss tss

  10. I’m confused, are there places where you don’t have to have a visa to leave the airport?

    Admittedly my world traveling experience is very small, but I had to get a visa in Germany and Ukraine when I went there for work. If memory serves.

    1. There’s a difference between the ‘visa’ you receive as a stamp at the airport, and an actual ‘visa’ which must be obtained before embarking on your travel.

      When traveling to Europe or other friendly nations, all you need is your passport and then to answer a few questions at the customs gate before entering the country. Other countries require visas issued by their embassies in advance of your arrival at the customs gate.

      Basically what you need to do is notify the embassy of the nation you’re planning to travel to of your plans. You have to leave your passport with them for a day or so, along with documentation of your travel arrangements (plane tickets, hotel reservations, etc.), along with a statement of your business in the country (tourist, visiting family, business trip, etc.), and occasionally a verification that you’re traveling with enough funds so as to guarantee that you won’t be a financial burden upon the host nation.

      The embassy checks out your story, either through a cursory inquiry or a deeper check if there’s reason to be suspicious (they may ask for additional details), and then you come back to the embassy to pick up your passport with an official visa document stapled to one of the pages, which declares the terms of your stay and allows you to pass through customs on arrival.

      This bill would require visitors to the United States who’ve recently traveled to Iraq or Syria to undergo the longer screening process.

      1. Okay.

        Not sure I see what’s wrong about that.

        1. Okay. People who lie about where they’ve been in the past five years and why at the airport will simply lie at the consulate instead. And how exactly is the consulate supposed to verify anything?

          Visa offices in consulates are not investigative agencies; what they do now is verify that you have the necessary documentation to show that you are coming to his country for a legitimate (and preferably short) reason and run your name through watchlists. That’s not at all compatible with verifying the reason somebody might have flow into Damascus in 2011.

          It’s a bureaucratic solution that would be difficult to implement searching for a problem and will only cause American tourists bureaucratic headaches when they travel.

          1. 1. It’s not about ‘lying’ to a customs officer, it’s about checking your documentation. You either have a stamp in your passport or you don’t. If you have the stamp, then you need to undergo more screening; this is actually very common practice. Sure, some people smuggle themselves around without documentation, but the vast majority of even terrorists who attend training camps in places like Syria or Afghanistan have their passports stamped at some point.

            2. Visa offices are not investigative agencies, but if an individual’s documentation is suspicious to them, they can indeed escalate it to an investigative agency for further scrutiny.

            3. At the very least, this will aid authorities in keeping track of temporary guests who may or may not be here for nefarious purposes and ensuring that they don’t overstay their visit.

            4. If your paperwork is on the level, the bureaucracy involved is quite minimal, especially for US tourists. There are plenty of services that will handle the entire process for you for a small fee. When I went to Brazil I needed a visa; sent my passport to a visa service and they had it done for me within 24 hours. It’s really not a big deal at all.

  11. Rand is wrong on this one. Lame as hell.

  12. it doesn’t matter if the proposed solution bears no relevance to the atrocity in question, or whether the enhanced dragnet of government databases would heavily inconvenience and sometimes thwart the rights of perfectly law-abiding humans (including Americans: remember, visa policies are reciprocal).

    First, how does ending a program that lets people in with no visa from certain problem areas bear no relevance to the issue at hand?
    Second, the people referenced as being inconvenienced (“military service men and women, journalists, NGO employees”) already have passports for the most part.

  13. There are no libertarian leaning senators in government.

    1. Nor are their any libertarian senators out of government.

    2. It depends how you define “leaning”. If a senator is in every way a conservative, EXCEPT he’s skeptical of large Defense budgets, one could argue he “leans” libertarian.

  14. OMG A SOVEREIGN nation has a right to determine who they let into their borders?
    Reason : that’s racist and not nice
    Private Property rights?
    Reason : that’s racist
    Freedom of Association?
    Reason : that’s racist

    hmm why doesn’t Japan and Korea have Islamic terror?
    maybe they know that Islam and their Cultures are incompatible?

    1. Nations don’t have rights.

  15. NGO/Military personnel would likely be in the global entry system and so would not be subject, no? Or am I misunderstanding? Out of all the myriad Gubbernmint programs that directly impact people, Visas/Immigration/Customs, etc. is always the most incomprehensible IMHO. It’s like these policies were written by 80’s era computer programmers.

  16. Matt,

    Define libertarianish and use it in a sentence with rand paul. Is that like when you a.) bitch about how big the government is, b.) then a large crime is committed in another country, and c.) you argue for closing the border?

    What’s Bernie Sanders’ position on Syrian refugees? I honestly don’t know, but given what we know about him he’s probably for invading Siberia for Lebensraum just so he can put people from Damascus in a reeducation camp.

    1. ^^ Speaking of hypocrisy. ^^

  17. Matt really can’t define libertarianish, but he’s apparently quite the litmustarian himself.

  18. Yes, tourists spend money. But those who spend time in Syria or Iraq tend also to act like an army (i.e., kill people and destroy things). I think they cost more than they’re worth — particularly with a large number of “Syrian” invaders (mostly young men, not women and children) pretending to be refugees. One would like to think that even a libertarian would be concerned about that.

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  20. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
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