Even as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it would tighten air travel requirements on foreign countries, a bill in the U.S. House that would pave the way for the citizens of more countries to be exempt from U.S. travel visa requirements was closing in on 100 co-sponsors.

As of the end of July, the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel Act, or JOLT, had 87 co-sponsors, split between 47 Democrats and 40 Republicans.

“It’s one of those bills that if we were to put it on the floor for a vote right now, we feel it would pass,” said Greg Lemon, the communications director for Rep. Joe Heck, the Las Vegas-area Republican who sponsored the bill along with Chicago-area Democrat Mike Quigley.

JOLT would give the DHS secretary a measure of leeway in decisions about expanding the Visa Waiver Program. At present, 38 countries, most of them in Europe, are on the visa waiver list. Among the nations that travel industry advocates would like to see added to the program are Brazil, Poland, Israel and Croatia.

Under current law, a country can join the program only if fewer than 3% of its citizens who apply for U.S. visas are refused. JOLT would allow the DHS secretary to admit to the Visa Waiver Program countries that have refusal rates as high as 10%.

The bill would also enhance security requirements for countries participating in the program, including requiring the issuance of electronic passports that make use of biometric recognition technologies.

Last week, the DHS, citing threats by militants, said it would henceforth require Visa Waiver countries to allow more American air marshals on flights to the U.S. and to use passports that have electronic chips and rely on fingerprints or other biometric identifiers.

Roger Dow, the CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, a key backer of the bill, said last week that he saw no conflict between JOLT and the DHS actions to tighten the waiver program.

“This slate of policy adjustments are a reminder that the [Visa Waiver Program] is first and foremost a security instrument and that an already-successful program can and should continue to evolve to make the country even stronger,” Dow said in a statement.

The House bill, if passed, would rename the Visa Waiver Program a more marketable Secure Travel Partnership Program.

The U.S. denies tourist visas for various security reasons, including failure to pass a criminal background check. But refusals are most commonly tied to concerns that an individual will remain in the country illegally after the 90-day visa expires.

In 2014, Brazil, Poland, Israel and Croatia had refusal rates greater than 3%, according to preliminary State Department data. But applicants in those countries also experienced significantly lower refusal rates than individuals in the visa waiver countries of Germany, France and Great Britain who registered to visit the U.S. through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), the automated platform that the U.S. uses to check the backgrounds of residents of Visa Waiver Program countries.

Being able to register for short-term U.S entry through ESTA, rather than having to go through an in-person consulate interview, streamlines the visa process. U.S. Travel estimates that adding just Brazil to the program would have brought 650,000 more visitors to the U.S. this year and added $7.6 billion to the economy.

This Congressional session marks the third in a row in which Heck and Quigley have filed the JOLT bill. During the session that ended in 2014, the bill garnered 166 House co-sponsors but never got a committee hearing. A companion bill last session in the U.S. Senate was incorporated into the immigration reform bill that the Senate passed, but the House failed to pass an immigration reform bill.

A Senate companion has yet to be filed this session, which ends in the fall of 2016, but Patricia Rojas-Ungar, U.S. Travel’s vice president for government affairs, said the organization expects to find a Senate sponsor by the end of the year.

In the meantime, less comprehensive measures are being put forward.

A bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) would expand the program but would not include a JOLT provision to ease restrictions on Canadians over age 50 who want to stay in the U.S. for up to eight months per year.

In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee amended the DHS appropriations bill to include a measure that would add Poland to the Visa Waiver Program. And that same month, President Obama and Brazil President Dilma Rousseff pledged to work toward visa-free travel between the two countries.

Rojas-Ungar said the reason JOLT didn’t make progress in the House earlier is that it became conflated with the immigration debate. U.S. Travel’s strategy this time around is to persuade the House Judiciary Committee, which hears DHS issues, to move it forward as a separate bill.

“The Judiciary Committee is going to have to take actions on some things related to travel and immigration, and ours is really the least controversial, so we hope they’ll take it up,” Rojas-Ungar said.

But while she argues that the Visa Waiver Program doesn’t relate to immigration, not everybody sees it that way.

Since 2008, the majority of new illegal immigrants in the U.S. have arrived legally using a temporary visa, according to the Center for Migration Studies, a New York-based think tank dedicated to supporting the rights of immigrants.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports tighter immigration controls, said JOLT should not be passed until the U.S. implements an electronic exit-tracking program to monitor visa overstays.


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