When Rhetoric Becomes Reality: Changes to Visa Waiver Program Create Second-Class Citizens

Detail from a USA visa document with magnifying glass.
Detail from a USA visa document with magnifying glass.

Co-authored by Morteza Karimzadeh, Ph.D. candidate with the Department of Geography at Penn State.

Much of the debate over the Republican primaries has centered on Donald Trump's racist statements and xenophobic political platform. While Democrats and Republicans alike have condemned Trump's most recent 'proposal' to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. as unconstitutional and un-American, this hateful rhetoric has manifested itself in a profoundly discriminatory policy. The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (henceforth referred to as H.R. 158) effectively renders dual citizens and those who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria second-class citizens by creating a two-tiered system of citizenship.

Since 1986, the Visa Waiver Program has enabled U.S. citizens to travel to 38 countries, primarily located in Europe, without a visa. However, changes to this program through H.R. 158 denies visa waivers to anyone who has traveled to or holds dual citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria. Although the stated impetus of this bill was the San Bernardino mass shooting, the origin countries of the perpetrators (i.e. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) were not included in the bill, yet another indicator of the political backdrop. As the Visa Waiver Program is based on reciprocity, a key concern is that the 38 U.S. allies will respond to H.R. 158 by imposing similar restrictions on born and raised U.S. citizens. Ambassadors representing 28 European countries penned an open letter urging Congress to vote against the bill, warning of the detrimental effects to the more than 13 million European citizens who travel to the U.S. annually, and the potential for legally-mandated reciprocal measures.

This troubling legislation follows a season of increasingly dogmatic and incendiary statements from American politicians. The Republican debates have morphed into outlandish theatrics, with presidential hopefuls competing to prove who can come up with the most exclusionary policies. Xenophobia has become fashionable through campaigns to refuse resettlement of vulnerable Syrian refugees (who were already subject to thorough and prolonged security screenings), and culminating in Trump's suggestions to create a national registry to monitor American Muslims and prohibit Muslims from entering the U.S.

Capitalizing on widespread anxiety and fear following the Paris terrorist attacks and the San Bernardino shooting, Tea Party supporter Congresswoman Candice Miller slid the H.R. 158 rider into the must-pass budget bill, the Omnibus Appropriations Bill 2015. Despite widespread public denunciations of Trump's hate speech by both Democrats and Republicans, policymakers from across the political spectrum voted in favor of the discriminatory bill. Although more than 200 non-governmental organizations - including the American Civil Liberty Union, the Leadership Conference, and the National Iranian American Council - raised numerous objections to the ways H.R. 158 curtails the most basic of rights, this bill was passed almost unanimously in the House and signed into law by President Obama on December 16. While the media heralded the relatively painless passage of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, coverage of H.R. 158 remains conspicuously absent.

While H.R. 158 will have countless repercussions for Americans and citizens from countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program, we will focus on Iran's inclusion in H.R. 158 to demonstrate how this legislation is a product of sordid political maneuvering within Congress that harms rather than protects Americans.

Targeting Iran through H.R. 158 is a deliberate provocation by members of Congress to derail the fragile international nuclear agreement, brokered by the Obama administration and ratified by the Security Council of the United Nations in July 2015. Through the passage of H.R. 158, Republicans have found yet another way to obstruct the nascent and precarious working relationship between the Obama and Rouhani administrations. A powerful bargaining chip used by the U.S. to reach a nuclear agreement included lifting punitive economic sanctions and fostering international trade opportunities for Iranians, which will undoubtedly be impeded by the new visa regulations. American and European business communities will be discouraged from traveling to Iran, fearing the strict limitations in their international mobility following a visit to Iran.

Recognizing the ramifications of new visa regulations to the nuclear agreement,
Secretary Kerry promptly sent a letter to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Kerry affirmed his commitment to the nuclear deal, assuring Zarif that the Obama administration has the ability to waive visa requirements and offer multiple entry ten-year visas - but only for the business community. So far, the only public discussion of protections of rights and mobility is reserved for the business elite.

Meanwhile, anxiety is building among the Iranian American community that our mobility will be drastically curtailed if any of the participating 38 countries in the Visa Waiver Program replicate the actions of the U.S. Congress. If Visa Waiver countries retaliate, Iranian Americans and other dual nationals will become 'less than' American citizens. We will be forced to go through long, expensive, and invasive security processes to secure visas for international travel. (This also raises important ethical questions about privileged passports.) This differential treatment of Americans solely based on national origin is unacceptable and a grave violation of the basic rights of U.S. citizens.

H.R. 158, covertly passed in the December budget bill, only serves to create second class American citizens. Alarmingly, growing racist and xenophobic sentiment within the U.S. has not only been tolerated, but actively supported, by politicians of all stripes who voted in favor of H.R. 158. This fear mongering turned law is a far cry from the professed American values of equality and equity, and certainly against the very principles of rule of law.