US visa requirements worry Americans of Mideast descent
Washington - Changes to the visa waiver program under a new anti-terrorism bill have taken effect, stirring controversy among travellers, lawmakers and civil rights activists.
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, which was folded into the omnibus spending bill and passed by Congress on December 8th, requires additional visa screening for certain citizens of the 38 European and Asian countries that are in visa-waiver partnership with the United States.
Anyone who is a dual citizen of Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan or has visited any of those countries within the past five years may be ineligible for the automatic visa waiver when visiting the United States. The bill passed in a swift and little-publicised session and received overwhelming bipartisan support, including a public endorsement from the White House, giving rights groups little opportunity to lobby against it.
As the new rules went into effect in January, the White House said it reserves the right to judge on a case-by-case basis whether to exempt certain individuals from the regulations. The move angered Republican lawmakers who advocated for the change in the VWP, accusing the White House of circumventing the will of Congress.
The measures affect only non- U.S. citizens but there is no immunity for US citizens from receiving similar treatment when travelling abroad. VWP partner countries may reciprocate and actively discriminate against American citizens of Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian and Sudanese origin, which has civil rights groups calling foul.
“We’re creating second-class citizens with this bill,” said Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), referring to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are dual nationals and could be affected if countries retaliate. ADC is preparing for the fallout, which is difficult because, Ayoub said, “there is no precedent on these specific measures”.
“We opposed and criticised the bill. It’s reasonable for the US to strengthen security measures but it’s not reasonable to discriminate against dual nationals,” said Joanne Lin, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
A measure was introduced in Congress in January to remove the discriminatory language that would exclude certain dual nationals from the Visa Waiver Program. The sponsoring lawmakers include three from Michigan, which has a substantial Arab-American population.
There is additional concern about the effect of the regulations on the Iran nuclear deal, which stipulates that Iran will no longer be subject to such sanctions.
On January 19th, a British-Iranian journalist for the BBC was barred from boarding a flight to the United States because of her dual nationality. The incident sparked outrage and flooded the US State Department and US Department of Homeland Security with queries about implications for dual nationals.
Critics point out that there are other countries more closely correlated with the travel patterns of suspected terrorists but are not named in the bill, given that they are US allies.
Turkey, for example, has been a main travel hub for Westerners joining Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Syria. Similarly, Saudi nationals represent a sizeable number of Arab jihadists in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were countries where one of the San Bernardino shooters became radicalised, according to the FBI.
“Yet none of them are mentioned and Iran is mentioned instead. It’s political, with the usual suspects in Congress lobbying against Iran,” said a Washington-based analyst on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. He added that the initial reform bill named only Syria and Iraq as “high-risk” countries, before lawmakers lobbied for a last-minute inclusion of Iran.
Indeed, the State Department has raised concerns about the legality of the measure under the terms of the Iran deal.
In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on December 17th, the State Department’s coordinator of the Iran agreement implementation, Stephen Mull, mentioned that “very senior” European officials said the VWP requirements “could have a very negative impact on the [Iranian nuclear] deal”.
The Iran agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed with Iran in July 2015 by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China.
To assuage these concerns, US Secretary of State John Kerry on December 18th wrote to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif saying he was “confident that the recent changes in visa requirements passed in Congress, which the administration has the authority to waive, will not in any way prevent us from meeting our commitments [in the Iran deal]” and that “we will implement them so as not to interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran”.