When Republicans—and some Democrats—started fear-mongering about refugees in the wake of the terrorist attack on Paris, Obama and senior Congressional Democrats tried to shift focus to reform of the visa waiver program as a potential bipartisan security measure.
The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, introduced by Republican Candice Miller earlier this year, would terminate travel privileges for all citizens of VWP countries who are dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan.
The bill may not be malicious as the refugee bill was, but it’s still misguided.
The ACLU explained why in a letter to representatives. I’ll highlight two key parts.
First, it’s discriminatory and arbitrary:
- H.R. 158 arbitrarily discriminates against nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan who are citizens of visa waiver program (“VWP”) countries—based on their nationality and parentage.
The VWP is a long-established program that permits nationals of certain countries to enter the U.S. as visitors (tourists or business) without a visa, for up to 90 days. H.R. 158 terminates travel privileges for all citizens of VWP countries who are dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan. This revocation of VWP privileges would apply to all nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan even if they have never resided in or traveled to Iraq or Syria. By 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.
There is no sufficient reason to justify the differential treatment of VWP citizens who are nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan. There is no evidence to support the blanket assertion that citizens of VWP countries, who are dual nationals of these four countries, are more likely to engage in terrorist acts against the U.S.
Not only is H.R. 158 discriminatory, it is arbitrary. Unlike the U.S. which grants citizenship to all children born on U.S. soil, birth within Syria does not automatically confer citizenship. Rather Syrian citizenship is conferred by naturalization or descent. With respect to descent, Syrian citizenship is conferred to children “born of a Syrian father, regardless of the child’s country of birth” or children “born of a Syrian mother and an unknown or stateless father.” The proposal would yield the untenable result of folding such gender-based distinctions into U.S. law.
Therefore, if H.R. 158 were to become law, the following types of travelers would automatically lose their VWP privileges, even if they have never been to Iraq or Syria:
- Dual-national French citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to U.S. for business conferences and meetings;
- Dual-national German (born to Syrian father) traveling to U.S. with vacation tour group;
- Dual-national Austrian citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to U.S. to take care of grandchild.
It is wrong and un-American to punish groups without reason solely based on their nationality, national origin, religion, gender, or other protected grounds.
Second, it’s an attack on journalists, academics, and humanitarian workers, all of whom do necessary work:
- H.R. 158 would end VWP privileges for all recent travelers to Iraq or Syria, including those who traveled there for professional purposes.
H.R. 158 would terminate VWP travel privileges for all who have been present in Iraq or Syria at any time on or after March 1, 2011. This broad travel restriction contains a very narrow exception for certain military personnel and government officials. Affected travelers would include journalists, scholars, refugee caseworkers, humanitarian aid workers, human rights investigators, and many others.
Under H.R. 158, the following types of citizens would automatically lose their VWP privileges based on their travel to Syria or Iraq since March 2011:
- British citizen, working as a reporter for the London-based Daily Telegraph who traveled to Syria to cover the civil war;
- Swiss citizen, working as a social worker in a Kurdish refugee camp in northern Iraq;
- Belgian citizen, working as a human rights investigator to document abuses committed by ISIL against Syrians.
Many of these VWP travelers have gone to Syria or Iraq for professional purposes and are producing reports and providing services to the U.S., indeed the whole world, depends upon, now more than ever. They should not lose their VWP travel privileges for their work in Syria or Iraq.
Human Rights Watch, the National Iranian American Council, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee have also spoken out against it, and EU officials have called it “counterproductive.”
Nevertheless, the vote was a lopsided 407 to 19.
The opposition came from 19 Democrats, mostly stalwart progressives.
Karen Bass (CA-37)
Yvette Clarke (NY-09)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Debbie Dingell (MI-12)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Sam Farr (CA-20)
Raul Grijalva (AZ-03)
Mike Honda (CA-17)
Hank Johnson (GA-04)
Dan Kildee (MI-05)
Brenda Lawrence (MI-14)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)
Mark Pocan (WI-02)
Jan Schakowsky (IL-09)
Mark Takano (CA-41)
Maxine Waters (CA-43)
Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12)
Frederica Wilson (FL-24)