WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday amended an immigration reform bill to allow visitors from Hong Kong to enter the United States without a visa.
The measure, which the committee approved 14-4, mirrors legislation that Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., recently introduced in the House to spur more travelers from the Asian territory.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, proposed the amendment, calling it a “technical fix” to a U.S. visa waiver program that currently allows travelers from 37 nations to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa.
Hong Kong does not qualify for the program now because it is not a separate nation but a special administrative region of China. The amendment, like Amodei’s bill, would create an exception for the territory, which contains the fourth highest percentage of millionaire households in the world.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., spoke in support of the proposal saying it would mean “more tourists spending more money in the United States.”
Hawaii saw a 35 percent increase in tourists from Korea after that nation joined the visa waiver program in 2008.
Nearly 129,000 travelers from Hong Kong visited the United States in 2011 or roughly the same as a year earlier, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., spoke against the amendment claiming it would reward China at a time when that nation has failed to live up to “normal international immigration laws.”
China is slow to accept the return of Chinese citizens facing deportation from the U.S., he said. The Department of Homeland Security said that on average China takes 134 days to conduct background investigations and verify nationality for deportees held in the United States.
The Judiciary Committee plans to continue work on the immigration bill next week.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.