The House of Representatives passed a recent bill, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 (H.R. 158), with an overwhelming vote of 407-19. The amendments to the Visa Waiver Program are rightly being criticized for being prejudicial, and subjecting dual citizens to systemic suspicion and discrimination. Congress’ discriminative bill is part of a political agenda rather than a solution to terrorism. The bill divides our country and challenges the fundamental principles of democracy the nation was founded on. As a country, we have the unique opportunity to rise up and denounce the bill’s blatant racism. Or, we regress to our darkest hours and marginalize groups of individuals solely based on their nationality.
The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 was promoted to the American public as an instrument to increase security components of the Visa Waiver Program’s structure in an attempt to prevent terrorists from entering the country. However, the bizarre “blanket” discriminatory provisions in H.R. 158 are illogical, allowing for well-founded objections to be made against the discriminatory legislation. A major criticism of the bill questions the logic of designating the four specific countries for blanket exclusion, as the affected counties (Iran, Iraq Syria, and Sudan) do not have a heightened number of terrorist perpetrators compared to other countries. For example, countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is well known as the main country of origin for Al Qaeda and ISIS, Pakistan, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Nigeria, Chechnya and additional nations and regions where terrorists have actually come from – are not designated. Because the visa-free travel program is based on the principle of reciprocity, restricting certain individuals based on their nationality would, in effect, create a second class of United States citizens, including Iranian-Americans, Iraqi-Americans, Sudanese-Americans, and Syrian-Americans or any United States citizen who visited any of the barred countries in the past 5 years. The passage of H.R. 158 allows the government to single out countries for added security concern solely based on a political agenda rather than legitimate security threats. This fact should terrify all American citizens regardless of nationality. The massacre of Native American, the slavery and racism perpetrated against African-Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the marginalization of other ethnic groups all come to mind with the passage of the bill.
The issues surrounding H.R.158 are particularly complicated for those of Iranian descent as Iran does not recognize the foreign citizenship of people whose parents are nationals of the country. For Iranian-Americans, it is illegal under United States law to engage in many activities in Iran, including simply transferring money to relatives in Iran. 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. The bill’s passage requires that all individuals of Iranian descent obtain a visa prior to travelling to the United States for any period of time. The “intended” purpose of H.R. 158 is to prevent acts of terrorism within the United States; however, there is no evidence that individuals of Iranian descent are involved in radicalization or perpetrated an act of terrorism in the United States. According to Iran Analyst Omid Memarian, “there were no Iranians involved in any of the major terrorist attacks in recent memory, from September 11 attacks, to attacks in Madrid, London, Bombay, Paris and elsewhere.” Additionally, Touraj Daryaee, Professor of History and Director of the Persian Studies at the University of California, Irvine provided that Iran’s assistance was crucial in defeating the Taliban in 2002. The visa waiver-exempt country even offered its assistance in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2003. Additionally, in 2014 when ISIS began to gain momentum, it was Iran that offered to put “boots on the ground” to fight the extremists. The “free pass” given to countries that have close connections to terror attacks is illogical and discriminatory at best. In an open letter to President Barack Obama, Hooshang Amirahmadi, PhD, President of the American Iranian Council provided, Americans of Iranian origin are a community of over one million educated, accomplished, and creative people who have made significant contributions to American society in business, medicine, engineering, technology, academia, and the arts. The enactment of H.R.158 would require these individuals, unlike their fellow Americans, to be required to apply for a visa anytime they plan a trip to these countries. For instance, according to the ACLU’s reading of the bill, a person who was born and raised in France but whose father is a Syrian 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 to Syria. According to the Public Affairs of Iranian Americans, the placement of individuals of Iranian descent and Iranian-Americans into a barred category of individuals, while leaving out individuals of many countries that ISIS operates in is ineffective policy and highly discriminatory.
Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry responded to criticism by those who worry that the amendments to the Visa Waiver Program could undermine the recent Iran nuclear agreement, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA). The international nuclear deal is intended to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, while offering financial incentives to the country such as lifting sanctions. In a letter to Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Kerry attempted to confirm that the new law would not circumvent the deal and that the Administration “might be able to waive certain provisions,” though he did not specify which ones. Further, Kerry mentioned a number of potential tools available to rectify the new law, including multiple entry ten-year business visas, programs for expediting business visas, and the waiver authority provided under the new legislation. In a recent interview published by The New Yorker, Zarif expressed his concerns saying, “”Has anybody in the West been targeted by any Iranian national, anybody of Iranian origin, or anyone traveling to Iran?” Zarif asked. “Whereas many people have been targeted by the nationals of your allies, people visiting your allies, and people transiting the territory of, again, your allies. So you’re looking at the wrong address.”
Highly politicized and blatantly prejudicial, H.R. 158 encourages legitimatizing systematic discrimination that massively disintegrates civil rights for millions of Americans by creating two-tier citizenship. The new law undermines the United States’ core values and castes American citizens of Arab, Iranian, and Muslim descent as second-class citizens in their own country. The legislation will effectively create two classes of Americans; Americans with Middle-Eastern or Muslim background, and Americans without that background. The political culture in the United States has dark and dangerous roots. With the mass murder of Native Americans, slavery and systematic marginalization of African-Americans, and the incarceration of those of Japanese background in internment camps, the United States must reconsider the new discriminative law before we allow history to repeat itself.