Everything You Need to Know about the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act
What is HR 158?
The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act is a White House backed, bipartisan effort to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to include terrorism risk as a factor when determining an alien’s eligibility to travel to the United States. The Visa Waiver Program currently allows citizens of 38 participating countries to travel to the U.S., Europe, Japan and South Korea without a visa for stays of 90 days or less. This legislation would exclude those with Iranian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Syrian nationality or anyone who has traveled to those countries in the past five years from using the program to enter the country. The amended bill was fast-tracked and passed in the House of Representatives on December 8, 2015 by a vote of 407-19.
Who will it affect?
HR 158 will require those who have “travelled to” or are “nationals of” Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria to attain a visa from the United States to be able to enter the country. It also includes dual-nationals of these states from the visa waiver participating countries (those who hold two passports). For instance, according to the ACLU’s interpretation of the bill, it is conceivable that a person who was born and raised in France but whose father is an Iranian citizen would be forced to get a visa before visiting the United States, even if that person has a French passport and has never been in Iran. However, others have interpreted travel to Iran within the past five years as the main determinant.
The original bill was initially produced to increase security components of the Visa Waiver Program’s structure in order to help prevent terrorist from entering the country. However, provisions were later added to bar people who had travelled to the primary states where ISIS operates, Iraq and Syria, as well as states labeled by the US as State Sponsors of Terrorism, which includes Iran and Sudan. Ironically, Saudi Arabia, the country which produced fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 perpetrators or Turkey, which many of the recruits use to enter Syria and join ISIS, were not included in the list.
How does this bill affect those of Iranian descent?
This issue is particularly complicated, as Iran does not recognize the foreign citizenship of people whose parents are nationals of that country. Europe has a large number of residents of Iranian descent, many of whose parents settled there after the 1979 revolution in Iran or to escape persecution.
If the legislation passes through Congress, it may require, depending on the interpretation of the law, that all aliens of Iranian descent obtain a visa prior to travelling to the United States for any period of time. It will certainly require those who have visited Iran within the past five years to obtain a visa.
How will this bill affect Iranian Americans?
The Visa Waiver program is based off of reciprocity. For example, a UK citizen can travel to the US for up to 90 days and a US citizen can also travel to the UK for up to 90 days without a visa. If this legislation becomes law, it will very likely trigger reciprocal restrictions from other participants in the Visa Waiver program. So, if the US requires Iranian-Europeans to obtain visas to travel to the United States, the EU nations will require Iranian Americans to obtain visas to travel to Europe.
Iranian-Americans (US citizens) who travel to Iran and return back to the US are not directly affected by this bill.
Why should people of Iranian descent be taken off of the list?
The purpose of HR158 is to prevent acts of terrorism within the United States. Of particular concern are citizens of the Visa Waiver Program participating countries who have been radicalized and have travelled to countries where ISIS operates. However, there is no evidence to suggest that persons of Iranian descent have become radicalized or committed an act of terrorism in the United States, or in any way acted against American national interests. Iranians are, by definition, sworn enemies of the Islamic State which considers all non-Sunnis – and specifically Iranians – as infidels and thus their main targets. To place a group of American dual citizens into a de facto suspicious category while leaving out other dual citizens of the many countries that ISIS operates in is ineffective policy at best and highly discriminatory at worst.
The United States is host to the largest expatriate community of Iranians in the world. Iranian Americans have contributed to the economic strength and cultural diversity of America. They serve as government officials, in the military and law enforcement, working to uphold the U.S. Constitution and protect all Americans.
Iranian Americans are by any objective standard, the second most successful immigrant group in the United States and contribute to every level of American society every day.
Among the victims of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino was a Christian Iranian American woman who came to the United States in search of religious freedom. Among the first-responders of the same attack was an Iranian American who serves as a SWAT team embedded medic.
In a time where the US national interest depends on promoting diplomacy and greater interaction between the peoples of the two countries moving forward, the successful passing of this legislation would be an enormous step backwards for US-Iran relations. To the extent that the bill discourages Iranian Americans from future travel to Iran, it plays into the hands of hardliners in the Iranian government whose goal is to keep the country isolated from the West, undermine US-Iran rapprochement, and inhibit social and economic reform and moderation.
What is PAAIA doing?
PAAIA staff, board members and trustees are in direct communication with Members of Congress to take those of Iranian descent off the amended bill.
Board members and trustees have also been contacting their Senators in an effort to stop the bill from passing the Senate.
PAAIA has reached out to legal organizations and is currently researching the constitutional legality of passing this bill and to discuss its implications.
PAAIA is putting together a survey targeted to the Iranian American community in order to shed light on our identity, affiliations and beliefs.
PAAIA will continue to monitor the situation and we will update you on developments related to the ongoing legislative process as well as how PAAIA is responding.