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Santa Fe New Mexican: Reader View: Enhance Visa Waiver Program to protect homeland

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL or ISIS, has barbarically killed and tortured innocent civilians, including Americans, not just in last month’s unconscionable attacks in Paris, but also recently in Beirut, and routinely in Iraq and Syria. Its brand of radical ideology has inspired horrific violence in places such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and San Bernardino, Calif.

Unfortunately, many of my colleagues in Congress and elected officials across the country in a knee-jerk reaction to ISIL’s terrorism, have called for a halt to our nation’s longstanding refugee resettlement program. Let’s remember that the enemy is ISIL, not the refugees who flee from their destruction. There’s a real difference between terrorists and victims of terrorism.

Our refugee resettlement program has long helped victims of violence and civil strife find a new home in America. Every single refugee — whether from Syria, the Congo or Burma — is subject to the highest levels of vetting and scrutiny, including repeated biometric screenings, before entering the United States. It takes years to pass through the strenuous screening process. The implicit assumption that Syrian refugees — many of whom have suffered terribly at the hands of ISIL — are a threat because of their country of origin is a rejection of American values and represents giving in to our worst ethnic and religious prejudices.

The real priority in protecting our country should be addressing the security gaps that currently exist under our nation’s Visa Waiver Program — something both Democrats and Republicans agree on.

The Visa Waiver Program exists to encourage tourism and trade with partnering countries. However, the program currently allows citizens of countries who qualify — 38 countries, including 31 from Europe, where thousands of citizens are suspected to have joined ISIL — to travel freely and stay in the United States for up to 90 days.

More than 25,000 foreign nationals are estimated to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight in the Syrian civil war. Individuals from Visa Waiver Program countries who have traveled to Iraq and Syria and have joined training camps or sympathize with ISIL’s cause should not be allowed to enter the United States. Period.

Instead of playing to our worst fears to halt our refugee resettlement program, Congress should close these loopholes that could allow dangerous individuals with violent intentions to potentially enter our country.

The Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act, bipartisan legislation I am sponsoring with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., will require all individuals who have traveled to Iraq and Syria in the past five years to acquire a traditional visa instead of traveling without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program. This process requires an in-person interview with an American consular official and the submission of the traveler’s biometric information.

Our legislation will also mandate that all countries in the Visa Waiver Program use electronic passports and require all travelers to submit biometric information, in the form of fingerprints and a photograph, before they travel to the United States.

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and the ongoing threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters, this bipartisan bill makes security enhancements that are critical to protecting our homeland.

We must tighten our Visa Waiver Program as soon as possible to prevent foreign nationals who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join training camps and sympathize with ISIL’s cause from ever entering the United States.

Keeping the American people safe is paramount. We must act responsibly by addressing actual threats and closing real gaps in our security apparatus.?

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, represents New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.