Will new US visa rules create second-class citizens?

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Rasha Elass is a global fellow at PS21 who previously reported from Damascus for Reuters, NPR and others.

Many years ago, before the so-called war on terror, a German immigration airport official glanced at my U.S. passport and asked: “Were you born an American or are you naturalized?”

Perplexed and a little offended (no airport official had asked me that before or since), I told him that, in the U.S., we did not discriminate on such basis, so he should not be doing so either.

But soon, this might change.

On December 8, Congress passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, which had been folded into the omnibus annual spending bill. The new VWP regulations single out certain citizens of the 38 European and Asian countries that are in visa waiver partnership with the U.S.  Anyone who is a dual citizen of Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan will be no longer eligible for the visa waiver when they want to visit the U.S. The same goes for anyone who has visited these four Arab countries in the past five years.

These measures, which received overwhelming bipartisan support including a public endorsement from the White House, are deeply problematic.

The original VWP gave citizens of the 38 partner countries the opportunity to travel freely between each others’ border, without requiring the traveler to undergo the sometimes arduous process of obtaining a visa prior to departure, a process that can take days, weeks, sometimes months, depending on the countries involved.

But with the new changes to VWP, the affected European and Asian countries can reciprocate in kind against the U.S., and actively discriminate against Americans of Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, and Sudanese origin in what has civil rights groups calling foul.

“We’re creating second class citizens with this bill,” said Abed Ayoub, the Legal and Policy Director at the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, referring to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are dual nationals who could be affected by reciprocity to this bill. His organization is already trying to prepare for the fallout, which is a difficult task because, he says, “there is no precedent on these specific measures.”

“We oppose and criticized the bill. It’s reasonable for the U.S. to strengthen security measures, but it’s not reasonable to discriminate against dual nationals,” said Joanne Lin, an attorney at American Civil Liberties Union.

Countries like Syria and Iran have no legal framework that would allow the relinquishing of citizenship, so technically anyone whose father is Syrian or Iranian is a citizen of these countries whether or not they chose it.

Another complication arises when dual citizens have family ties in their home country. Already, they must contend with impossible embargoes and international regulations that restrict the movement of money to loved ones back home.

For example, Syrian-Americans cannot send money directly to family members stranded inside Syria, whether in rebel held territory or in government controlled Damascus. No financial institution will transfer the funds there directly, forcing many Syrian-Americans to take undue risk and deal with third parties, like well-meaning friends in neighboring countries who agree to receive the funds through wire transfer then send it as cash with a fourth party into Syria, which can put the life of this person at great risk. Iranian-Americans and many other dual nationals have been dealing with similar obstacles for years.

With this bill, as if not enough forces have conspired against innocent Syrian civilians, everyone of Syrian origin in the VWP partner countries must jump through additional hoops.

Also, as the legislation is currently worded, there is no protection from extra scrutiny for professionals who travel to the sanctioned four countries for legitimate reasons, including journalists, human rights defenders, humanitarian aid workers, medical support personnel, academics, field researchers, and many others.

Indeed, even the tens of thousands of U.S. government personnel who have made a career out of traveling to Iraq in the past five years may not be protected from additional scrutiny when they travel to Europe.

The bill gained traction in the aftermath of the Paris Attacks and later the San Bernardino shootings. While minimizing the threat of terrorism from visitors to the U.S. should remain a high priority, it is ironic that this bill does not sanction those who have visited other countries known to have a correlation with terrorism.

The San Bernardino shooters, for example, had visited and lived in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where they were radicalized, according to the FBI. The Paris Attack culprits went to Syria through Turkey, like tens of thousands of other international jihadists. Yet the new VWP bill mentions none of these U.S. allies. Instead, it focuses on countries that have little or no clout in Washington,  and leaves many Americans vulnerable to discrimination abroad.

So the next time an airport immigration official in a foreign country asks whether or not I am a “real American”, it is truly unfortunate that I will have to pause a little before I answer.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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