WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s plan to loosen some requirements of a visa law spurred by the deadly attacks in Paris met with open resistance from both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.
The measure, which went into effect in late January, requires that citizens of 38 countries who previously were able to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa must now obtain one if they have visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria since March 1, 2011.
Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Wednesday said he wanted to add Libya to the list of countries covered by the restrictions.
At a hearing of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, lawmakers voiced particular concern over exempting from the new visa clamp-down some travelers who visit Iran, including those conducting business.
“Nowhere does the law include this authority. In fact, Congress explicitly rejected the waivers requested by the White House,” Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican, said.
Lawmakers enacted the visa restrictions on fears that travelers from the mainly European countries in the Visa Waiver Program could easily travel to the United States even if they have, for example, visited countries like Syria, Iran or Iraq, where militants are active.
The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris stirred fears about such travel. Some of the Islamic State attackers who killed 130 people that day held European passports that would have allowed them easy entry to the United States.
Representative Bennie Thompson, the Homeland Security Committee’s top Democrat, echoed Republican concerns about Obama‘s announced plan to allow visa waivers for foreign business people who travel to Iran.
“I have some questions about how the (Department of Homeland Security) would go about determining the legitimacy of the business-related purposes,” he said.
Administration officials countered that they wanted to shield journalists, humanitarian aid workers and employees of other international organizations, as well as business people helping economic reconstruction efforts in Iran and Iraq in particular, from the tougher requirements.
Individuals must qualify for the Visa Waiver Program, with background checks against U.S. counter-terrorism and law enforcement databases. State Department counter-terrorism official Hillary Johnson told the committee there are regular reviews of those who are approved.
Gil Kerlikowski, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, told the committee an estimated 500,000 people who come into the country under the waiver program have overstayed their visas. He said he did not know how many of them might have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan.
Administration officials expressed concern that if the United States fails to loosen some of the new restrictions, foreign governments might cut back on information sharing, or impose awkward new visa requirements on Americans who travel to their countries.
Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Richard Cowan and Leslie Adler