Bipartisan Plan for Visa Changes Faces Business Backlash

Efforts to curb a visa-waiver program in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks may win bipartisan support in Congress but already are stirring backlash from industries that thrive on foreign visitors.

Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Thursday that they plan to introduce a bill after the Thanksgiving recess that would tighten up parts of a decades-old program aimed at increasing the number of international tourists visiting the United States.

But industry groups argue that security backstops enacted in the 14 years since the Sept. 11 attacks are sufficient, and that overhauling the visa-waiver program would simply make it harder for law-abiding visitors to put the United States on their itineraries.

Though other reactions to the Paris attacks, including a House plan (HR 4038) to add new FBI certifications for potential Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers, have largely divided the parties, changes to the visa program appear to have broad backing. That means the business community has a tough job ahead.

“We understand on a political level why Congress wants to do something — especially when the knock on Congress is that they don’t get much done,” said Jonathan Grella, the U.S. Travel Association’s executive vice president for public affairs. “There are plenty of ideas that don’t come at the cost of economic benefits.”

Grealla said his group is “pumping out” videos and fact sheets to make its case. Before lawmakers dashed out of town for the holiday, Grella said theme parks, hotel chains, cruise lines, casinos, rental car providers and other players he represents started reaching out to Capitol Hill and plan to continue the pressure campaign back home.

“We’ve found that a very effective method of communicating,” Grella said. “We hope lawmakers will listen.”

Pivot in Strategy

Before Paris, the travel and tourism industries had been on the offensive regarding the visa program. Bills (S 2091, HR 1401) introduced in both chambers already this year aimed to expand the visa program to encourage more visitors.

Even the Senate bill’s champion, Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has thrown his support behind security changes now. A Schumer aide, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said the senator still supports his bill but added “the security provisions need to be strengthened in light of what happened” in Paris.

Industry groups said targeting the visa-waiver program won't make the country safer.

Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, said the visa waiver program helps “facilitate the movement of travelers to the United States, while maintaining the highest levels of security.”

The program, which allows visitors from about 40 countries to make short business and personal jaunts to the United States without a visa, does not exempt those foreigners from security screening and other vetting, Hinton noted.

Lobbyist Stewart Verdery, whose clients on visa issues include U.S. Travel, the U.S. Olympic Committee and technology company Sabre, said he’s making the case to lawmakers that the United States has “multiple layers of checks,” and that protecting the homeland is more of an intelligence question than a visa-waiver concern. (The U.S. Olympic Committee has not taken a position on new visa waiver legislation, Verdery said.) 

That’s because the interviews and visa process likely only would flag someone if they had already been identified by intelligence agencies.

This story was updated to make clear the U.S. Olympic Committee has not taken a position on new visa waiver legislation.