Feinstein at center of move to restrict visa-free travel to U.S.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is leading a push in the Senate to tighten restrictions on foreign travelers to the United States in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, but tourism leaders in California and nationwide argue that Feinstein’s proposal goes too far.

Feinstein introduced a bill on Tuesday to clamp down on a program that allows people from 38 countries, mostly European but also allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, to travel to the U.S. without a visa.

Her proposal would require that travelers be fingerprinted before arriving in the U.S. and would forbid anyone who visited Iraq or Syria in the past five years from coming to America without a visa – a process that sometimes takes weeks and involves an interview at a U.S. consulate.

Although Congress is often incapacitated by partisan fights and dysfunction, with significant policy bills rarely making much headway, the drive to restrict foreign travelers under what’s called the visa-waiver program could be different, given a boost by the Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks and the controversy over accepting Syrian refugees.

Feinstein’s co-sponsor on the bill is Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, also favors restricting visa waivers. “We want to make sure we do that very soon,” he said.

An estimated 20 million foreigners a year travel to the U.S. without going through the in-person interviews at American embassies and consulates that are required when getting a visa.

Feinstein’s legislation comes 12 days after the House of Representatives, reacting to the Paris attacks, voted 289-137 to block President Barack Obama’s plan to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. in the next year.

Reps. Ami Bera of Elk Grove and John Garamendi of Walnut Grove were among the 47 Democrats who broke ranks to support the Republican measure, which would prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. unless the heads of three federal security agencies deemed each one does not pose a threat.

Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not calling for a stop to allowing Syrian refugees into the country, but she called the visa-waiver program “the soft underbelly of our national security.” The Paris attackers identified so far were not citizens of Middle Eastern nations such as Syria and Iraq, but rather France and Belgium, countries from which travelers can visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa.

“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 further scrutiny, come into the U.S.,” Feinstein said.

Barb Newton, president of the California Travel Association, said she supports Feinstein’s goal but wants to ensure the visa measures are effective and don’t just obstruct legitimate travelers to the U.S.

“Travel and tourism is an incredibly important economic driver for California,” Newton said. “We want to make sure it’s not just rash, gut reactions to the Paris terrorism that is causing people to make decisions without thinking through the implications.”

Tourism brought in $117.5 billion in direct spending in California last year and $9.3 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to a report from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office. More than 16 million international visitors come to California annually, the bulk from nations such as Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Great Britain and South Korea that are covered by the visa-waiver program.

Patricia Rojas-Ungar, vice president of government relations for the U.S. Travel Association, said the industry is worried that Feinstein’s proposal to require collection of so-called biometric data such as fingerprints would cut the number of visitors.

She said the visa-waiver program is hugely successful at drawing tourists to America. She noted that visitation from South Korea boomed by 40 percent after that nation was added to the program in 2008.

“I don’t think we want to rush into implementing something that could have a huge significant negative impact on how the program works,” Rojas-Ungar said.

Rojas-Ungar questioned whether the State Department even could collect fingerprint scans from millions of would-be visitors. She said the fingerprints are already collected when the travelers get to American airports.

Rojas-Ungar said the travel industry supports some measures to strengthen the visa-waiver program. She praised plans announced by the White House on Monday that include better efforts to determine if a traveler has been to a country that is a “terrorist safe haven” and improving the sharing of terrorism information between nations.

Feinstein said she welcomed the White House announcement but also believes more changes are needed.

Feinstein’s bill would require foreign travelers in the visa-waiver program to carry electronic passports that have built-in chips for storing data such as fingerprints. Those fingerprints would need to be taken the first time a traveler makes plans to travel to the United States.