Congress Just Passed Part of Donald Trump’s Immigration Plan in the Budget Bill*
By Claire Bernish
“Fear is one of the most dangerous emotions on earth, and fear is making us behave in ways that [are] contrary to our values and our interests.”
Friday’s $1.1 trillion omnibus budget bill, intended to keep the U.S. government operational through September 2016, passed both houses of Congress with a rather stunning provision stuffed away inside: changes to the Visa Waiver Program so draconian they essentially implement the spirit of Trump’s contentious immigration proposal.
Based solely on a person’s heritage, many U.S. citizens will likely have their freedom to travel freely in Europe and East Asia restricted in startling ways.
This might not sound like much on its surface, but the scope of this provision creates a waterfall of consequences so insidious it’s questionable whether the politicians who designed it did so without malicious intent.
According to the more than 25-year-old Visa Waiver Program, citizens in participating countries have been able to travel to the United States without needing a visa to do so. Because the program is reciprocal, that same privilege extends to U.S. citizens visiting any of the 38 nations currently on that list. But Congress just changed the rules dramatically by requiring people coming from those countries, including citizens, to have a visa if they are nationals of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, or Syria — or if a person has simply visited those countries since 2011.
Two glaring complications immediately spring to mind: Iran and Syria consider someone a national if their fathers are citizens, indeterminate of their place of birth or current location of residence. So, as Murtaza Hussain explained in the Intercept, “it’s possible that someone who is a citizen of one of the countries on the visa-free travel list — the United Kingdom, say — and who lives there and grew up there and has never visited another country, could end up denied entry to the U.S. because of a parent born in Iran or Syria.”
Secondly, it’s reasonable to expect Visa Waiver Program countries, including those in the E.U., to employ equivalent constraints for ‘Americans’ — “meaning that many Iranian-Americans, Syrian-Americans, and others in the U.S. would see their ability to travel the world seriously degraded based on ancestry or dual citizenship.”
If you think your heritage means these dubious restrictions don’t apply to you, be advised those who simply travelled to the targeted countries since 2011 — journalists, missionaries, business people, aid workers, or even sight-seers — fall under the reciprocal umbrella, as well.
Though many assumed the Visa Waiver Program amounted to a free pass for would-be terrorists, that claim never held weight. In a statement made in anticipation of the constraints — signed by all 28 European Union member-state ambassadors — E.U. Ambassador to the U.S., David O’Sullivan, explained:
“The Visa Waiver Program is an essential tool in transatlantic relations which allows millions of citizens from our respective countries to visit the U.S., and vice versa, for tourism or business purposes, while ensuring a high and effective level of security […]
“It is not, contrary to some suggestions, a license to enter the U.S. with nothing more than the wave of the passport of an allied country. It is a program which makes travel to the U.S. both easier and safer […] Travellers under the VWP are required to hold machine-readable passports containing biometric data; to possess a valid onward ticket on an approved carrier, and, most importantly, to undergo the same comprehensive background checks […] as are required for visa applicants […]
“A blanket restriction on those who have visited Syria or Iraq, for example, would most likely affect only legitimate travel by business people, journalists, humanitarian, or medical workers while doing little to detect those who travel by clandestine means over land.” O’Sullivan adds those strictures “would be counterproductive, could trigger legally-mandated reciprocal measures, and would do nothing to increase security while instead hurting economies on both sides of the Atlantic.”
In early December, an apparently astonished ACLU issued a letter to the House urging prudent revisions before the implementation of proposed restrictions — which it rightly described as both “discriminatory” and “arbitrary.” According to the letter:
“By singling out these four nationalities to the exclusion of other dual nationals in VWP countries, [the bill] 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.”
Though perhaps not as wide a discriminatory net for Trump and his supporters’ satisfaction, these latest provisions should be cause for everyone’s concern — even if they have no political inclinations whatsoever. As was also highlighted in the Intercept, some features in the newly-passed legislation are alarmingly contradictory to the also newly-negotiated Iranian nuclear agreement:
“[A] European or Japanese business owner who travelled to Iran to take advantage of recently lifted economic sanctions would thereafter find themselves denied visa-free entry to the United States — a restriction that would inevitably act as a deterrent to doing business in Iran. But the provisions of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal prohibit policies that undermine ‘the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.’”
Aptly stating concerns of an untold number of people — in the U.S., Iran, and elsewhere — the National Iranian-American Council’s sister organization, NIAC Action, also released a letter in early December that implored Congress to “take a stand against fear-mongering.” Though its admonition fell on the notoriously deaf ears of the U.S. government, NIAC Action’s plea for reason cannot be ignored by the more rational among us:
“This is an outrageous bill [that] risks creating a separate class of American citizen. An American passport is an American passport regardless of the ethnicity or national origin of the person holding it […] In the face of terrorism, Americans must stand united — not divided based on national background.”
Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kuwait, told the Middle East Eye:
“This just really scares me. 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.” He went on to warn, “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 [are] contrary to our values and our interests.”
Most ominously, as similarly cautioned by Anti-Media, Crocker exhorted,
“If we take this step, what other steps might follow?”