WASHINGTON -- More than 90 percent of the House of Representatives supported a bill last week to stiffen requirements for a program that allows some foreign nationals to visit the U.S. more easily. The White House supported the legislation, and many members of the Senate do, too.
But a group of House Democrats is hoping that before a bill makes it to the president's desk, it will be changed to avoid discriminating against some people based on their national origin.
Thirty-three Democratic lawmakers signed on to a letter released Friday urging amendments to the visa waiver bill -- including 13 who voted in favor of the bill. Those 13 are: Reps. Bill Pascrell (N.J.), Michael Capuano (Mass.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Jerry McNerney (Calif.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), Doris Matsui (Calif.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Judy Chu (Calif.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Mark Takai (Hawaii) and Ted Lieu (Calif.).
The bill, called the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act, puts restrictions on the visa waiver program, which allows nationals of 38 countries to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. While they undergo some screening, it's not as extensive as that of people granted visas or who enter with refugee status.
Under the bill, dual nationals of certain countries including Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan and recent visitors to those countries would be unable to use the visa waiver program. A Senate bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) focuses on people who visited Iraq or Syria in the past five years. A provision on the visa waiver program could also be inserted into a yet-to-be-introduced spending bill that Congress aims to pass next week.
The idea behind the visa waiver bills was to make it harder for people like the alleged Paris terrorist attackers, most of whom were citizens of visa waiver countries in Europe, to enter the U.S.
The House Democrats on the letter warned, however, that the provisions of the House bill as written could "result in discrimination against people simply because of their ancestry."
"Making sure that we avoid as many unintended consequences as possible is particularly important when we are proposing to disqualify specific populations of people from long standing immigration practices," the letter reads.
The American Civil Liberties Union and 75 other civil rights, immigration and justice groups took issue with the bills Thursday, citing several examples of people who would be excluded from the visa waiver program under the legislation:
Dual national French citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to U.S. for business conferences and meetings;
Dual national German citizen (born to Iranian father) traveling to U.S. on vacation;
Dual national British citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to the U.S. to take care of grandchild.
Both the House Democrats and the advocacy groups expressed concerns about the provision for visitors to the affected countries as well. Under the House bill, people who went to those countries after March 1, 2011, would not be allowed to use the visa waiver program, even if they visited as aid workers, human rights investigators or for research. They argued that legislation should exempt people who traveled to the countries for those reasons.
Another qualm from the House Democratic members and advocacy groups was that the bills have no set end point, which would mean visitors to and dual nationals of certain countries could be excluded from the visa waiver program for years even if circumstances change.
Both letters stressed that they were not opposed to making changes to strengthen the visa waiver program in general.
"We all agree that the first responsibility of government is to keep the American people safe, and the American people are rightfully concerned about the threat of terrorism," the lawmakers' letter reads.
Four Democrats from Michigan -- Reps. John Conyers, Debbie Dingell, Dan Kildee and Brenda Lawrence -- spearheaded the letter.
The full letter from members of Congress is below:
Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Reid:
We write to urge you to carefully consider concerns with H.R. 158, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015, as you begin your deliberation of this bill in the Senate and consider its possible inclusion in omnibus appropriations legislation.
We all agree that the first responsibility of government is to keep the American people safe, and the American people are rightfully concerned about the threat of terrorism. This is why we are pleased that Congress and the Administration have been examining changes to the Visa Waiver Program to ensure that any vulnerabilities that could put the American people at risk are addressed.
Requiring all travelers under the Visa Waiver Program to have an unexpired, fraud-resistant electronic passport is an important security measure to take. We also support new requirements for Interpol screening of travelers and reporting on theft of passports. These provisions are included in H.R. 158 and would help improve our security here at home, should the bill be enacted into law.
However, we should be very cautious regarding bills that have not had the full benefit of committee hearings or markups. As we saw when the House passed H.R. 4038, the American SAFE Act of 2015, a number of unintended consequences came to light after the bill had already passed the House.
Making sure that we avoid as many unintended consequences as possible is particularly important when we are proposing to disqualify specific populations of people from long standing immigration practices.
As written, H.R. 158 would result in discrimination against people simply because of their ancestry. These changes could result in our Visa Waiver Program partner nations placing new limits on travel by U.S. citizens to their countries. Fundamentally, people seeking entry into our country should be evaluated based on the specific security risk that they themselves pose – not where their parents are from. Additionally, the bill would bar certain humanitarian workers from traveling under the Visa Waiver Program, and thus could result in less assistance reaching some of the most vulnerable individuals in the world. The bill also fails to include a sunset provision for the new visa waiver procedures, denying Congress the opportunity to reevaluate their efficacies and determine if additional changes are needed.
As we move forward on this issue, we hope that you will consider three possible changes to the House-passed version of H.R. 158:
- Provisions that discriminate based on ancestry should be eliminated.
- Exceptions are needed from the bars on visa waiver travel for those who have spent time in Syria, Iraq, and other designated countries to provide medical or humanitarian aid or as journalists or researchers.
- Changes to the visa waiver program should require reauthorization after a specified period of time.
We look forward to working together to keep the American people safe and to ensure that these concerns, and others that may come to light in the coming days, are adequately addressed.
Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Dan Kildee (Mich.), Brenda Lawrence (Mich.), Debbie Dingell (Mich.), Hank Johnson (Ga.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Jim McDermott (Wash.), Mark Takano (Calif.), Sam Farr (Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Mike Honda (Calif.), Bill Pascrell (N.J.), Maxine Waters (Calif.), Michael Capuano (Mass.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Jerry McNerney (Calif.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.), Keith Ellison (Minn.), Raúl Manuel Grijalva (Ariz.), Frederica Wilson (Fla.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Karen Bass (Calif.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), Doris Matsui (Calif.), Judy Chu (Calif.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Mark Takai (Hawaii) and Ted Lieu (Calif.).
Correction: A previous version of this article said Doris Matsui represents Arizona. In fact, she represents California.
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