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Middle East-related visa waiver restrictions in US bill hurt travel, access and relations

The bill restricts access to the visa waiver for anyone who has traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and other 'countries of concern' since March 2011
Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kuwait, shares concerns about the impact of the new visa rules (MEE/Molly McCluskey)

WASHINGTON - Sweeping financial legislation that averts a government shutdown passed the House and Senate - but with controversial provisions to the visa waiver programme targeting citizens of, or visitors to, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

For nearly thirty years, the visa waiver programme, administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), allowed for visa-free travel to the United States for up to 90 days for citizens of 38 nations, including 23 of the 28 European Union countries (the remaining five hope to join). Those nations offered reciprocal arrangements to US citizens.

“The backbone of the EU-US relationship is the interaction between our citizens, in particular the fact that millions and millions of Europeans and Americans cross the Atlantic each year to do business, study, or simply visiting friends and family,” James Barbour, spokesperson and head of press and public diplomacy for the EU delegation to the United States, told Middle East Eye.

“Visa waiver helps to facilitate that travel and generates tremendous economic benefits for both Europe and the United States. So any change that would lead to decreased transatlantic travel activity would be detrimental to both the EU and US.”

Barbour wouldn’t speculate on whether the EU would change its visa policies towards US citizens, saying simply, “The European Commission will assess in April the extent to which the EU receives the same beneficial visa waiver arrangements it offers to other countries.”

The vote, which passed the House 316-113 and the Senate 65-33, restricts access to the visa waiver for anyone who has traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and other “countries of concern” since March 2011, or is a citizen of those countries, even if they also hold citizenship in a country that participates in the programme. Critics say the restrictions pose an unnecessary burden, and that many people have valid reasons for traveling to those countries, reasons that don’t include terrorism.

Of particular concern is how the new rules will impact dual citizens. Jamal Abdi, the executive director of NIAC Action, the lobbying arm of the National Iranian American Council, told Middle East Eye, “It’s opening the door to these restrictions that are based on dual nationality. The precedent that this establishes, we are s aying you are formally going to be treated differently because of your dual nationality, which oftentimes is automatic and handed down, not by any choice you’ve made or behavior you’ve exhibited but because of who your parents are.”

“This does take us down the path of creating a separate class of citizens,” Abdi said.

Speaking before the bill passed in the Senate, Ryan Crocker, dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service (Texas A & M University) and former US Ambassador to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kuwait, also shared concerns about the impact of the rules on citizens who have multiple nationalities.

“That just really scares me,” Crocker said. “It is highly discriminatory. It is discriminatory not based on who you are or what you did, but who your father or your mother is.

“In addition to requiring visas for individuals who would otherwise have this requirement waived, because of travel to select countries, it goes into a very dangerous area saying in effect a British born, British citizen who happened to have a Syrian or Iranian father, even though the citizen in question had never been to that country, would never be able to get a visa waiver,” Crocker told Middle East Eye.  “If we’re prepared to pass legislation like that, what are we prepared to do about our own citizens? Fear is one of the most dangerous emotions on earth, and fear is making us behave in ways that is contrary to our values and our interests.”

Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who sponsored the Visa Waiver Programme Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act in the Senate, wrote in a statement:  “I am pleased that these reforms have passed Congress. Protecting Americans against terrorism is something we can all agree on. These reforms to the Visa Waiver Programme will improve our ability to keep terrorists out of the United States while maintaining the legitimate travel and the security benefits of the Visa Waiver Programme.”

Shortly before the vote, an official from the State Department warned lawmakers that tightening the visa restrictions could have a “very negative impact” on the Iranian nuclear deal. Abdi said the threat is real, and serious.

“In the nuclear agreement itself, the United States is supposed to lift secondary sanctions that have prevented Europe and other countries from going into Iran and doing business,” Adbi told Middle East Eye. “Now you have a scenario that what looks like - and in practice is  - a type of sanction, where if you are a business in Europe and you have executives who are traveling to Iran to explore business operations, you are then going to be punished. You’d have to go through a second procedure if you want to go to the United States. It can also have an impact on tourism in Iran, which is something the Iranian government was looking at as one of the real benefits of this deal.”

Barbour points out that the visa waiver programme was initially designed to help enhance security between the EU and the US and has in many ways succeeded. “Our joint security and counter terrorism cooperation is actually one of the key benefits of the EU-US visa waiver reciprocity programme as it mandates bilateral and multilateral information and intelligence sharing, secure passports to confirm identity, and permits regular audits of the security standards of participating countries,” he said.

“This has been critical to the success of this programme over the years: it enables us to catch criminals and those who would harm us, while allowing millions of bona fide European and American travellers to cross the Atlantic every year. We are of course keen to work with our US partners to continually improve the Visa Waiver Programme and the security benefits it brings us.”

But, he added, “We are understandably less keen to see the introduction of blunt instruments which might reduce the efficacy of the scheme while doing little to improve our collective security.”

Abdi, who described the moment as a “crossroads,” said that the changes don’t have to be permanent, that the economic impacts or burdens the changes will place on US citizens abroad could help undermine and erode the new regulations.

But he was admittedly concerned about the unknowable changes to come. And, as Crocker mused, “If we take this step, what other steps might follow?”

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