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Bipartisan Legislation Aims To Tighten Visa Waiver Program

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear about a bipartisan proposal to improve American security. Republican calls to ban Syrian refugees have become a partisan issue. Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims has divided even Republicans. Some lawmakers from both parties, however, argue the real security risk is elsewhere. They say they want to change the visa waiver program, which allows people from 38 countries to come to the United States without a visa right now. One sponsor - and there are Democratic and Republican sponsors - is Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Good morning, sir.

JEFF FLAKE: Thank you for having me on.

INSKEEP: So why do you want to focus on the visa waiver program instead of Syrian refugees or all Muslims, for that matter?

FLAKE: Well, obviously, we want to make sure that all of our programs that allow people to come into the country are sound and that there's thorough vetting. But it just strikes me that if you list those programs, you know, in order of vulnerability, visa waivers is much closer to the top than, say, the refugee program.

INSKEEP: So you think you're going where the security threat is because that allows people from Europe to travel fairly freely to the United States, for example.

FLAKE: You bet. When you look at the Paris attacks, you realize that most of those involved, if not all of those involved, had European passports and could, unless they were on some other list, travel freely to the United States for up to 90 days. Then you think, maybe we ought to tighten this program.

INSKEEP: Of course, the problem there is that travel back and forth to Europe is kind of great. It's economically great, people enjoy it, so what do you want to do about that?

FLAKE: Well, you bet. I like this program. We've expanded it. We included South Korea just recently. I think it's a valuable program. It's something we ought to continue and we ought to strengthen. And we just want to make sure that we - that our partners in this program, 30 of whom are European countries, share information with us, that they move along in terms of having e-passports to make it easier, and ultimately, that we do a better job with biometrics as well - not just on the back end, as we do now, but on the front end as well.

INSKEEP: So that's what you're asking? You're going to require more of other countries in terms of intelligence and electronic information?

FLAKE: Yes. We do have better cooperation than we have in the past. But still, it needs to be improved in some areas, particularly where individuals may have traveled to areas where ISIS is flourishing and may have been with or trained with or affiliated with ISIS.

INSKEEP: You want better information if someone now living in Europe has traveled to Syria, for example.

FLAKE: That's correct.

INSKEEP: We do have to mention though, if we think about the attack in San Bernardino instead of the one in Paris, of course, one suspect was U.S.-born. His wife came to the United States on a fiancé visa - completely different from the visa waiver program. Your proposal would not have affected that attack.

FLAKE: That's right, that's right. Obviously there are other programs - there are asylee programs, you know, other student visas, tourism visas and others that we need to look at. We want to make sure - these are valuable programs, obviously. We're not calling to curtail them. And even under what we're talking about, those from Europe would not be barred from coming to the United States at all. It would simply say that the program that we have that waives the requirement for them to obtain a visa - that we would want to make sure that that is tightened.

INSKEEP: Senator we've just got about 30 seconds here, but I want to ask a bottom-line question here. Donald Trump's proposal to ban all Muslims for a while from visiting the U.S. has been called un-American and a lot of other things - inconsistent with the freedom of religion. But as we've heard in this program today, lots of voters - Republican voters, especially - want to go there. They want to do that. They say they're scared. That raises a question for you. Can you make this country more secure within broadly-accepted American values?

FLAKE: I think we can. And those descriptions of Donald Trump's program, I've used many of them. I do think it's un-American. I don't think it's warranted. I think that it will backfire. But I think we do need to - where we have programs, where there are vulnerabilities, we need to address them.

INSKEEP: Are you willing to say to Americans, just calm down?

FLAKE: I'm willing to say, yes, that the last thing we need to do is go down the road that Donald Trump is going down.

INSKEEP: Senator Flake, thanks very much for your time.

FLAKE: You bet. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.