New York, US – For Hadi Ghaemi, an Iranian American, moves this week to tighten controls on travel to the United States set a worrying precedent.
On Tuesday, politicians voted to stop anyone who has visited Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan during the past five years – or nationals of those countries – from travelling to the US under a visa-free scheme that is available to many Europeans, even for dual citizens who also live in a non-effected country.
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According to Ghaemi and other campaigners, it is the thin end of the wedge.
Not only would it make it harder for many academics, aid workers, businessmen and other Europeans with Middle Eastern connections to visit the US easily, it also reinforces negative stereotypes about the region, he said.
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“I want the government to be vigilant about who enters the country, but an approach that targets entire communities, restricts them and holds them all responsible for the acts of a few, sets a dangerous precedent,” Ghaemi told Al Jazeera.
The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for new limits to the “visa-waiver” scheme, following the November 13 attacks in Paris, during which fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) massacred 130 people in the French capital.
Voting also followed the December 2 deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two suspected ISIL sympathisers, fears of more strikes on US soil, and Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s call to bar all Muslims from entering the US.
Visa waiver discontents
“This bill could be an opening salvo to the type of policies that Donald Trump advocates, and we should condemn it now before it becomes more widespread,” added Ghaemi, who runs the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a pressure group.
The legislation targets a scheme that allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the US for stays of 90 days and less without first getting a visa from a US embassy or consulate. It started in 1986 to boost tourism and tighten the US’ relationship with close allies.
Belgium and France, home to most of the attackers in Paris last month, are among the countries that participate in the scheme, which covers European states as well as Japan, South Korea, and other Asian nations.
The bill would institute changes, including new visa requirements for citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan, along with anyone who has travelled to those countries in the previous five years, unless they had been on government business or military service.
President Barack Obama’s administration supports the measures. The upper house has not yet scheduled a vote on the bill, which could be included in a trillion-dollar spending bill that Congress must pass soon to avoid a government shutdown.
Some 20 million visitors enter the US annually under the visa-waiver scheme. They are already screened in a government-run system, and the White House has recently unveiled upgrades to that and other aspects of the programme.
The scheme has been used by would-be attackers, including the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in 2001, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” of the September 11 attacks, who entered the US on a French passport and no visa in 2001, according to a government probe.
Kevin McCarthy, a Republican politician, warned of 5,000 holders of Western passports who have been to Iraq or Syria in the past five years and could have been radicalised, like the Paris attackers. “Those are gaps that we need to fix,” he told Congress this week.
… automatic exclusion from the visa-waiver programme is a step too far because it would [affect] businesspeople, humanitarian workers, medical workers, journalists.”]
The bill is backed by the US Travel Association and the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) even though visa-free visitors boosted the US economy by $190bn last year and supported nearly one million jobs.
“We don’t feel it dramatically alters the landscape, while providing more enhanced security measures,” Terry Dale, the president and chief executive of USTOA, told Al Jazeera. “We want to dot our i’s and cross our t’s when it comes to security.”
But Yolanda Rondon, a lawyer for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that it reinforced prejudices about the Middle East and could herald a clampdown on applicants for tourist, business or student visas.
“Some people from the region are already waiting two years just to come and visit family in the US or undertake a business-related trip,” Rondon said. “It’s an agenda to shut down the immigration system and exclude Arabs or people perceived to be Arab, including Muslims.”
‘A step too far’
Republican politicians and governors have already tried to halt Obama’s plan to let 10,000 Syrian refugees into the US in the next year. That bill has not gone anywhere in Congress and looks unlikely to advance.
Others question the K-1 fiance visa scheme that was used by Tashfeen Malik, a 29-year-old Pakistani, to come to the US from Saudi Arabia to marry her American-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, before the couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino this month.
Jamal Abdi, the director of NIAC Action, an advocacy group for Iranian Americans, warned that the new bill does little to boost security while discriminating against many Europeans who hold dual citizenship with Iran and other listed countries.
“What came out of the House was drafted in the toxic political environment spawned by Donald Trump, and frankly by other Republicans running for president, and the fear that they have stoked following the Paris attacks and San Bernardino shootings,” Abdi told Al Jazeera.
Under the new rules, visa-waiver scheme members would have to share counterterror information with the US. All visitors would be checked against Interpol databases, and members would have to issue “e-passports” with biometric data.
David O’Sullivan, the European Union ambassador to Washington, said new rules on biometric passports would be “cumbersome” and warned that many Europeans would lose the right to visa-free travel.
“Making the mere fact that you have been to one country in the last couple of years mean an automatic exclusion from the visa-waiver programme is a step too far because it would mean businesspeople, humanitarian workers, medical workers, journalists,” O’Sullivan told Al Jazeera.
“Frankly, people who have visited those countries for more malevolent purposes are unlikely to declare they have made such trips.”
Next April, EU members will discuss a visa-waiver scheme that is reciprocal – meaning rule changes by the US can be counterbalanced by similar restrictions from European countries, O’Sullivan added.
For Ghaemi, the US would be “shooting itself in the foot” with new rules that ultimately make it harder for both Europeans and Americans to cross the Atlantic for conferences.
“Our work requires a lot of travel to Geneva, Brussels and European capitals for advocacy,” he said. “If our staff had to apply for a European visa every time we had to travel, it would bring that work to a halt.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl