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Visa Waiver Program DOES NOT MEAN WAIVER OF Security: HR 158 Just Political Clout for Congress to Say Did Something, A Facade to Discrimination

0b49c0fYolanda Rondon, ADC Staff Attorney

With all the misinformation, and political rhetoric that Congress just wants to keep America safe, and requiring a visa merely does just that, lets set the facts straight. They are wrong. Congress today passed the omnibus bill package that included discriminatory restrictions on travel based on national origin. Congress again today, immorally and improperly used the loom of a “government shutdown” to coerce and strong arm members into agreeing to legislation that harms our citizens, and violate civil and human rights.

The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act is a reactionary tool by Congress to profile based on national origin: 1) imposes a mandatory and categorical bar to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) on any individual who is a dual citizen of Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Iran; and 2) prohibits any person whom has traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Sudan since March 1, 2011.

Blanket exclusion of visitors to Iraq and Syria would not be an effective security measure as it relies on self-reporting accurate tracking of who visits those countries that could be circumvented by someone intending to do harm — the persons who are intent on engaging in terror activities are not getting their passports stamped, they are sneaking into Syria and Iraq.   The provision is more likely to screen out health and aid workers, clergymen, journalists, teachers, military personnel, translators, family visitors and others who are helping protect Americans or have legitimate or completely innocent reasons to visit Syria or Iraq – essentially penalizing them for their honesty and performing humanitarian work.

Even the Department of Homeland Security – Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelli Burriesci of PLCY Screening Coordination Office – stated “there are a host of security checks conducted on each VWP traveler, prior to travel to the United States, as a result of each applicant being required to have an approved Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). To be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, each country must first meet statutory requirements, and then maintain security standards throughout its membership.”

The ESTA is an online vetting application introduced in 2008 pursuant to the 9/11 Act Commission Act of 2007, that focus is to address evolving threats to national security. All VWP travelers are required to complete prior to traveling to the U.S., and must provide extensive biographic information that is vetted against DHS, Department of State, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Intelligence Community databases. VWP travelers are not allowed to board a place to the U.S. without submitting the ESTA application, and VWP travelers who pose threat to national security are denied travel authorization. In 2014 and 2015, there were additional security measures put in place by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and National Counterterrorism Center including enhanced traveler vetting, information sharing, use of the INTERPOL Lost and Stolen Passport Database, and acceptance of only electronic passports with biometric identifiers when traveling to the U.S. Thus, HR 158 just redundant of procedures already in place if we were truly focusing from a security lenses, which we know Congress is not. Profiling in law enforcement is not only discriminatory but proven to be also be ineffective – Immigration and citizenship bans on Asians, forced placement of Japanese Americans in internment camps, “stop and frisk” policies against African and Latino Americans.

Imposition of a mandatory bar to all persons whom are dual citizens of Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Iran is blatant profiling on its face. Only nationals of particular countries regardless of whether they have traveled to a terrorist support country or not, have to meet additional requirements they would not otherwise have to go through if they were not Arab. It is premised on the unreliable assumption that Arabs are more prone to terrorism and to commit terrorist acts, and further perpetuates stereotypes that Arabs are terrorists. There is no separate assessment and/or security review done that determines that specific person on a case by case basis is a security threat, unrelated to their identity, place of birth, or country of national origin.

Our European allies under VWP reciprocal act to exclude and/or deny Americans based on these same prohibitions –travel to Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Sudan, and those whom hold dual citizenship with these designated countries – will have profound impact on Arab American citizens. According to 2010 Census data, Syrian – 147,426; Iraqi – 73,896; and Sudanese – 48,763 Americans. We expect that these numbers are much greater and thus the impact on Arab Americans is even much greater, as 2010 Census data is outdated and purports that there are roughly 1.5 million Arab Americans, while other reports indicate there are over 3.5 million Arab Americans.[1]  Syrian Americans are the 3rd largest group of Arab Americans. This means that over 270,000 Arab Americans, many whom have never step foot in the Arab region, let alone Syria, Iraq, or Sudan, would be prohibited from travel to European countries under VWP – solely because of their dual citizenship by birth through their father – national origin.

It is not black and white, nor simple to suggest that the bill just requires individuals to get a visa. The bill is not just a visa requirement, it is discriminatory mandate. The United States and Congress must stop preaching respect for human and civil rights, and actually defend it.

[1] Arab Americans have been under-represented in Census data due to definition of whom is Arab (relevant to Sudanese) as well as many Arab Americans still identify as White.