Senator Cardin Seeks Changes to Visa Waiver Program Reform Legislation

December 15, 2015, Washington, D.C.  –  Yesterday, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), issued a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (R-NV), Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), asking them to make several changes to the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 (H.R.158which is under discussion for inclusion in the end of the year omnibus spending legislation. 

The letter recognizes the need for changes to the Visa Waiver Program to address national security issues, but highlights several provisions that Ranking Member Cardin believes are “easily remedied.” 

First, he recommends that the Senate provide exemptions on travel to those working for international organizations. “The House bill, for example, will bar visa-free travel by a citizen of a participating Visa Waiver Program country who travels to Iran as an inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency,” the letter proclaims.  “These individuals should not be penalized for their critical work in countries of concern and their professional contributions to global peace, security, and humanitarian outreach.”

The letter also asks the Senate to eliminate provisions that discriminate based on dual citizenship solely on ancestry.  “Its inclusion is also likely to trigger reciprocal treatment of similar U.S. citizen dual nationals by our European allies.”  Furthermore, the letter urges Congressional leaders to require reauthorization of the bill after a period of three years when its effectiveness can then be assessed.

PAAIA has been in direct communication with members of Congress to express the Iranian American community’s concern with the legislation.  We have recommended that the text of the legislation be amended to ensure that Iranian Americans are not adversely affected solely based on their national origin or for visiting family and other legitimate travel plans. 

Click here to read Ranking member Ben Cardin’s letter. 

The Visa Waiver Program 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. The legislation would exclude dual nationals from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria or anyone who has travelled to those countries in the past five years from using the program to enter the country. 

Because the program is based on reciprocity, this would most likely trigger similar restrictions on American citizens from European and other participating countries.  As such, Iranian Americans could be barred from the visa waiver program solely based on their national origin, and be impacted in a disparate fashion.

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