US visa waiver changes decried as discrimination

Critics of new visa waiver regulations says US unfairly punishing dual nationals of Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Syria.

U.S. Secretary Kerry looks at his notes as he attends a meeting between Obama and Turnbull in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington
The US government has been criticised for changes to its visa waiver programme that targets dual national citizens of Sudan, Iran, Iraq and Syria [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Washington, DC – The United States government has been criticised for changes to its visa waiver programme that target dual national citizens of Sudan, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The new measures, voted into law by Congress in late 2015, cancel the US visa waiver for citizens of those four countries who are dual nationals of countries that are part of the programme. 

Such dual nationals will now be required to apply for a US visa in person. The changes also mandate people who have travelled to these countries since March 1, 2011.

Critics say that this measure punishes dual nationals, some of whom may have never been to their ancestral countries, such as Jamal Abdi, policy director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington, DC. 

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“If your father is an Iranian national, you are considered an Iranian national, and that applies even if you have never travelled to Iran,” Abdi told Al Jazeera.

“But that is the circumstance that a lot of people are going to be faced with.”

The Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the US for business or tourism for up 90 days without a visa in return for reciprocity by these countries to American travellers.

Some 20 million people visited the US as part of the VWP in 2014, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which administers the programme in consultation with the state department.

According to the new restrictions, exceptions will be made on a case-by-case basis, but it is unclear whether explanations will be given to those whose applications are rejected, evoking comparisons to the US’ no-fly list.

Journalists, business travellers and humanitarian workers are among those eligible for waivers, which are currently being explored for dual nationals, according to the state department.

The administration has defended the new limits on travellers, which come in light of the killing of 24 people in San Bernardino, California, last year by a Pakistani woman who was a permanent resident of the US and her husband, a US citizen.

Since the attack, concerns have been raised about the ability of potential attackers to enter the US without scrutiny.

Others argue that the regulations will only bring a false sense of security to Americans. 

“This is a very generalised measure that is not going to be very effective,” said Angelita Baeyens, programme director at the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Human Rights.

“It will not make the country any safer. It’s just to show people that measures are being taken to help protect the US,” she told Al Jazeera. 

“It’s also causing a lot of confusion when it comes to interpreting it, and the lack of clarity is an additional problem that is going to make things worse for millions of regular people,” Baeyens added. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s Joanne Lin also slammed the move, calling it a “wrong-head law which discriminates based on national origin, parentage, and ancestral ancestry. 

“Congress has passed, and the Obama administration is now implementing, an unjustified discriminatory law that is fundamentally wrong and un-American,” Lin, the ACLU’s legislative counsel, told Al Jazeera. 

The state department, however, said in a statement: “US Customs and Border Protection [CBP] welcomes more than a million passengers arriving to the United States every day and is committed to facilitating legitimate travel while maintaining the highest standards of security and border protection.”

Earlier this week, a BBC journalist was prevented from boarding a plane to the US because of her dual British-Iranian nationality.

Two online campaigns were launched condemning what the measure’s opponents call second-class US citizenship based on national origin.

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Democratic Congressman Jared Huffman has also circulated a letter to House representatives, calling on US President Barack Obama to waive the restrictions that would impact dual nationals and people who have travelled to Iran.

Lawmakers are also being urged to sign on to the Equal Protection in Travel Act – a new bipartisan legislation that would permanently repeal the restrictions on dual nationals.

Only five of the 28 European Union member states have yet to be admitted into the WVP.

Writing on behalf of the EU last month, David O’Sullivan, the EU ambassador to Washington, denounced the move as “indiscriminate action against the more than 13 million European citizens who travel to the US each year”. 

O’Sullivan warned that it could “trigger legally-mandated reciprocal measures, and would do nothing to increase security, while instead hurting economies on both sides of the Atlantic”. 


But some say the real target for the visa eligibility changes is Iran.

The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, has said that the changes amounted to “harassment” and blatantly violate the nuclear agreement signed with the US.

The US state department, however, has said that the administration assured Iran that the visa regulations would not be an obstacle.

State department spokesman John Kirby said that Secretary of State John Kerry “made it clear that we’re going to implement this new legislation so as not to interfere with the legitimate business interests of Iran”.

Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa

Source: Al Jazeera