WASHINGTON—Three senators on Thursday introduced a bill calling for tighter controls on U.S. visas in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, a proposal they called a common-sense effort to keep potentially dangerous foreign nationals out of the country.
The bipartisan measure is designed to aid identification of people with known ties to terrorist cells overseas and prevent them from obtaining their own visas or using someone else's visa, lawmakers said.
Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) said the Visa Integrity and Security Act he is sponsoring would develop an automated system that could use biometrics such as facial and iris screening to "provide the highest degree of positive identification possible" of those who want access to the U.S. The measure also would mandate the sharing of visa and immigration information among the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI and law-enforcement agencies.
Bond said his office has made the White House aware of the proposal. "I can't say we have the blessing of the administration," said Bond, who added he believes that has more to do with the speed at which the proposal is being made than with its contents.
The bill may be attached to a wider counterterrorism proposal giving broad new powers to authorities such as extending wiretapping laws and treating e-mail communication like telephone conversations so that law enforcement can more easily subpoena an Internet service provider's records of the e-mail a suspect sends and receives.
Versions of the counterterrorism package could reach the House and Senate floors as early as next week.
A logical upgrade
Bond said the visa bill represents a logical upgrade to U.S. security. "We think there are a number of things we can do to tighten up the system," he said. "We'll know if the person coming in is the person cleared to come in."
If anyone overstays a visa or prematurely leaves a school they were in the U.S. to attend, that information should be processed and quickly shared among federal agencies using a compatible computer system, the senator said.
Many of the terrorists involved in the attacks on New York and the Pentagon are believed to have overstayed or otherwise violated the provisions of visas they obtained to enter the U.S., the bill's sponsors said.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), another sponsor, said he believes people across the country had a common reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I think all of us believed we have to do a better job of protecting our own people," said Conrad, who called keeping terrorists out of the U.S. "Job One."
Conrad said the U.S. shouldn't shut its borders or harass those who are here legally. "But when someone overstays their welcome, a red flag ought to go up," he said.
"If we shut our doors, terrorism wins," Conrad said. "But we can make ourselves a lot safer and a lot smarter."
Groups that have urged lawmakers not to trample on civil liberties and avoid knee-jerk legislative reactions to terrorism called for a measured look at the visa issue. The Free Congress Foundation has circulated letters on Capitol Hill calling for lawmakers to be careful as they seek new restrictions.
J. Bradley Jansen of the foundation's Center for Technology Policy said any legislation that would call for information to be shared among the State Department, FBI, CIA, INS and others should be examined closely.
"We would want to know what safeguards there are here against potential abuses of this data and exactly who would have access to it," Jansen said. "There should be full disclosure on how this will be used and who will make decisions based on the data."
A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union said the organization would also be interested in the proposal.
Call for cooperation
The bill's third sponsor is Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Snowe, a former member of the House foreign affairs subcommittee, said she became interested in tightening immigration loopholes after considering the case of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is believed to have led the group responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Lapses allowed Abdel Rahman repeated entry to the U.S., she said.
Snowe called for better cooperation between the State and Justice Departments, noting that Justice Department officials previously have decided that the State Department is not a law-enforcement agency and should not have access to some criminal databases. Justice officials offered no immediate comment on the new bill.
The senators said the plan could cost $300 million to $500 million to implement and that higher visa fees could generate those funds.