The House on Thursday passed legislation that would tighten the security aspects of the refugee program, while many senators argue the real threat is a terrorist slipping through the visa program.
These programs are certain to remain under heavy scrutiny by Congress in the coming weeks as lawmakers debate which poses the greatest security threat and to what degree the United States should help refugees seeking to escape the fighting in their homelands.
What follows is a look at how each program works, whom it applies to and what changes Congress is considering.
Visa Waiver Program
How it works: Allows citizens from 38 approved countries, mostly in Europe, to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa if they meet certain requirements, including clearing an electronic screening system. Countries that join the program, which is administered under the Homeland Security Department, share law enforcement and security-related data with the United States to maintain security standards. In order to board a U.S.-bound plane, travelers must clear the Customs and Border Protection’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which helps determine whether an individual’s travel to the United States will pose a security risk. This requirement was added after 9/11 to enhance the security of the program.
Who it applies to: Business travelers and tourists.
Number of people affected: 20 million each year enter the United States through this program.
How Congress may change it: Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) plan to introduce legislation that would end visa waivers for people who have traveled to Iraq and Syria in the last five years. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also plans to introduce legislation that would implement a 30-day waiting period for people traveling under this program. And House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said the House could soon move legislation addressing concerns about visa waivers.
Why: Some lawmakers fear there may not be enough security safeguards to prevent potentially dangerous travelers from entering the United States using a passport issued by a country that is a U.S. ally.
How it works: Those seeking refugee status must apply through the United Nations and before being accepted into the United States they are vetted by several federal agencies, including the F.B.I, Defense Department and Homeland Security Department. These agencies conduct a background check using biographic and biometric information, such as fingerprinting, that is run through databases maintained by counterterrorism, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The refugees are interviewed in person by DHS officers. Those coming from Syria go through an additional screening process called the Syria Enhanced Review process, which includes an in-person interview.
Individuals who are granted refugee status are placed in various cities across the country and receive assistance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Many Syrian refugees are now living in Houston, Tucson, San Diego, Chicago and Boise. Upon arrival, refugees are eligible for benefits, including cash and medical assistance for up to eight months; social services such as job training; English language training; and translation and interpreter services for up to five years. After a year in the United States, refugees are required to apply for a green card.
Who it applies to: Refugees, who the U.S. government defines as any person outside their country of nationality or residence who is unable or unwilling to return due to fear of persecution.
Number of people affected: The United States admitted 1,854 Syrian refugees since 2012, according to The New York Times. That is a small fraction of the nearly 4.3 million refugees who have fled Syria since the start of that country’s civil war, according to U.N. estimates. The White House is pledging to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States in the next year.
How Congress may change it: The House just passed a bill that restricts refugees from Iraq and Syria from entering the United States. The measure would require the F.B.I director, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence to certify that every Syrian or Iraqi refugee admitted to the United States is not a security threat. Senate Democrats are vowing to block it and President Obama has pledged to veto the legislation.
A similar measure could be attached to the year-end spending bill that must be completed by Dec. 11.