In a move that civil liberties groups decried as allowing for "blanket discrimination," the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to increase restrictions on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
The VWP allows citizens of 38 countries, which include many western European nations like France, the UK, and Ireland, to travel to the U.S. without needing a visa for stays of 90 days or less. Among other things, the revamp would deny the visa-free entry to citizens of those countries who have traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan within the last five years.
"It also would also require countries participating in the program to share information with U.S. authorities about suspected terrorists," Reuters reports.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) praised the passage of the measure authored by Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) as "a major step forward in our effort to prevent foreign terrorists from reaching our shores."
But that spin was countered by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who criticized what she described as unnecessary restrictions, saying in statement Wednesday: "The legislation that was voted on today claims to prevent terrorists from entering this country, but instead of preventing high-risk individuals from entering this country, many low-risk individuals will be barred from the Visa Waver Program." The measure, H.R. 158, "would only prevent many law abiding individuals from entering this country," she stated.
H.R. 158 was also opposed by a number of rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC).
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The ADC called it "an ineffective mechanism to prevent terrorism or protect the security of our nation," and outlined its opposition with these four points:
- The bill intentionally discriminates against Arabs and engage in profiling based on national origin, forcing dual citizens to have to relinquish their identity to be treated and provided the same benefits that all citizens are afforded in their own country;
- The bill fails to provide legitimate exemptions or waiver to nationals whom traveled to designated countries for humanitarian (doctors and nurses, journalists, translators), business, and familial reasons;
- The bill fails to include a sunset provision – which would make this legislation expire and require passage of new legislation, thus allowing for review of its need and effectiveness; and
- The bill fails to provide any review process to VWP nationals to be exempt by the U.S. Embassy or consulate in their home country.
The ACLU expressed its opposition in a letter to the House on Monday, urging representatives to amend the measure and writing that "[b]y singling out these four nationalities to the exclusion of other dual nationals in VWP countries, H.R. 158 amounts to blanket discrimination based on nationality and national origin without a rational basis."
It's not just "discriminatory, it is arbitrary," the letter states. Among those who would lose VWP privileges, the letter notes, include a "Dual-national Austrian citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to the U.S. to take care of grandchild;" or a "British citizen, working as a reporter for the London-based Daily Telegraph who traveled to Syria to cover the civil war;" or a "Belgian citizen, working as a human rights investigator to document abuses committed by ISIL against Syrians."
In a statement issued Tuesday, NIAC Action executive director Jamal Abdi said, "Unfortunately, the House of Representatives took a page from Donald Trump today and voted for legislation that discriminates against certain dual nationals by barring them from the visa waiver program."
"This proposal will not make our country safer, it compromises our core values and risks discriminating against American citizens," Abdi stated.
The ADC was also joined by several other organizations including Human Rights Watch, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Just Foreign Policy, and the NAACP in sending a letter (pdf) to the House earlier this week, urging that "In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, America must show its leadership by ensuring we remain an open society that welcomes people of all nationalities, faiths and backgrounds."
On H.R. 158, the Guardian reports: "The legislation is considered likely to advance through the Senate and become law by the end of the year."