The U.S. should review a visa waiver program that gives European visitors easier access into the country as foreign fighters with Islamic State return to Europe and attempt to travel to the U.S., Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said.
The expected military defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will decentralize the threat from the terrorist group and put the U.S. at greater risk, as militants with citizenship in Europe return home and plot further attacks, Kelly said in a speech Tuesday in Washington. It’s a concern shared by European allies, Kelly said, as large numbers of fighters are already going back.
“Most of those countries are visa waiver countries,” Kelly said at the event organized by George Washington University. “We have to start looking very hard at that program — not eliminating it and not doing anything excessive — but look very hard at that program and say, ‘What do we need to do?”’
Countries in the visa waiver program include Belgium, Spain, France, the U.K., Italy and Germany as well as non-European nations such as Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Chile and Japan. People from the visa countries aren’t eligible if they also hold dual citizenship from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan.
Any changes to the program, which lets most citizens or nationals of select countries travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa, would be the latest effort by the Trump administration to tighten border security. The administration last month issued new rules barring laptops and other electronic devices in carry-on luggage from eight Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Kelly said his department “will likely expand” on such restrictions.
While foreign fighters with Islamic State may initially return to their home countries, Kelly said their “real intent” is to travel to the U.S., which is “the Super Bowl in terms of terrorists.”
“They want to get here, they want to do us harm,” he said. “That’s my concern now that we’re winning in Iraq and soon to win in Syria, that those fighters go back to their homes in Europe and then very possibly make the trip to the United States.”
Turning to Syria, the retired Marine Corps general said he was among the Cabinet members who helped President Donald Trump make the decision to launch a cruise missile strike against an airbase in the country this month after accusing President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out a chemical attack against civilians.
“He was very open to anyone at the table talking and giving their idea” in the White House situation room, Kelly said. “There was give-and-take, and he took all of that in. He made exactly the right decision.”
Kelly acknowledged that he’s been told his department, which includes everything from the Coast Guard to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has the “worst morale” in the federal government, adding that his employees have been used as “political pawns.” But he said he and the administration have “got their back.”
He criticized public officials for often ridiculing and insulting DHS staff.
“If lawmakers do not like the laws that we enforce, that we are charged to enforce, that we are sworn to enforce — then they should have the courage and the skill to change those laws,” Kelly said. “Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
On reports of people being held up at airports for secondary screening or being refused entry into the U.S., Kelly said “believe me, it’s not because of their skin color” or where they’re from, or because of their religion. Instead, he said it’s because an indicator or tip, such as something they said or the content on their mobile phone, prompted officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to make that decision.
“I can’t tell you the number of phone calls I get from members of Congress telling me about how we’re refusing someone’s entry at LAX or at JFK because they’re Muslim or because they’re Arab,” Kelly said, referring to international airports in Los Angeles and New York. “It’s absolutely not true.”
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