Citizens of US allies are joining the Islamic State (ISIS) in droves forcing Washington to adjust – but not entirely rethink – its border security policies.
The continuing threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) has forced the United States government to reassess its border security controls with even citizens of friendly nations now subject to tighter controls.
No longer simply a magnet for militants in the Middle East, ISIS is now known to have recruited hundreds of Westerners to its burgeoning ranks in Iraq and Syria. British, French, Spanish, and Australian citizens are known to have joined the militant Islamist group causing consternation in Washington.
Those four countries are among the more than three dozen whose citizens are exempted from the normal visa regime under the terms of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Citizens of these countries need only complete an online form and pay a small processing fee before being granted entry to the United States, usually within seconds.
Known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, this speedy process sees nearly 18 million people enter the United States each year without offering much more information to the Customs and Border Protections service than their name, address, date of birth, passport number, and flight details.
Speaking under conditions of anonymity to Reuters earlier this month, one Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official conceded that the government is concerned about the risks posed by the situation in Syria and Iraq, where increasing instability has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including many from VWP countries.
In the face of the growing number of Westerners falling under the spell of the ISIS leadership, the United States has instituted new policies aimed at gathering more than just these basic details about visitors previously assumed to be friendly.
New rules demand that any traveler who completes the ESTA form must now inform Homeland Security of their parents’ names, their city of birth, their national identification number, any aliases they have used, as well as complete and current employment details.
“We are taking this step to enhance the security of the Visa Waiver Program,” said DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, “to learn more about travelers from countries from whom we do not require a visa.”
Yet while Secretary Johnson seems content with simply gathering more information about VWP arrivals, some voices on Capitol Hill are urging more significant reforms. Chief among them are Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Republican Congressman Scott Perry (R-PA) who co-sponsored a bill earlier this year aimed at restricting the ESTA program further.
“As things presently stand, Islamic extremists holding certain European passports can simply get on a plane and fly to the U.S. without a visa,” said Gabbard. “By temporarily suspending the Visa Waiver Program, all visitors from these countries will be vetted and have to go through a visa application process before they are allowed to step on U.S. soil.”
In a media statement Congressman Perry was similarly forthright. “We all learned on September 11, 2001 and in Benghazi two years ago that waiting to act until terrorists plan – or execute – an attack will cost American lives. We have to be pro-active in protecting our homeland,” he said.
Perry continued, “Terrorists with Western passports pose a clear risk the United States. Immediately suspending the visa waiver program with any country that has identified passport holders fighting with Islamic extremist organizations is a common-sense way to protect our citizens.”
Lobby groups for the tourist industry, however, disagree. The US Travel Association (USTA) argues that far from being closed down the VWP should be expanded to include at least another eight countries. In a report published on their website the USTA argues that adding Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Israel, Panama, Poland, Romania, and Uruguay in the VWP would result in another 500,000 annual visitors, $5.3 billion for the national economy, and more than 30,000 new jobs.
Says the USTA, “For the United States, every potential new VWP visitor constitutes, in effect, a walking economic stimulus.” Still, the chance that these VWP visitors might actually be IS sympathizers or, worse, actual ISIS members is so far giving Congress pause in adding new countries to the ESTA entry regime.
Some wonder, though, just how long Washington can hold out against the pressure of the tourism lobby. The tourist industry represents either the first, second, or third largest employer in 29 of the 50 states and is a formidable force on The Hill. The newly formed US Tourism Industry Super PAC is likely to spend big as the 2016 election cycle gets into gear and politicians, particularly Democrats still hurting from recent midterm defeats, will likely welcome the cash that the Super PAC can inject into their next campaign.
Despite calls by Gabbard and Perry to reform the VWP, if only temporarily, it seems unlikely that any real action will be taken that might seriously impact the flow of wealthy visitors to the US. For the moment the Obama administration seems content to simply gather more information about VWP arrivals and continue the fight against the ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria. That the enemy might be standing in line at LAX instead of crouching in a Syrian foxhole is a reality that, for the moment, remains just too uncomfortable to truly consider.
Tourist dollars or secure borders – where should the national priority lie? Have your say below.