UPDATE, 5:40 p.m. EST: The House vote to add restrictions to the U.S. visa waiver program was overwhelmingly in support of the proposal. It passed 407-19, Alex Moe of NBC News tweeted.
The House overwhelmingly passed a bill to tighten the visa waiver program 407 to 19 (all GOPers voted for the bill)
— Alex Moe (@AlexNBCNews) December 8, 2015
UPDATE, 5:35 p.m. EST: House lawmakers voted Tuesday to approve restrictions on the U.S. visa waiver program, which enables passport holders from 38 countries to visit the country without obtaining a visa, Reuters reported. The measure would place restrictions on those who have traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan since March 1, 2011.
Rihan Younan visited Syria last week, and she plans to happily go next weekend, too. International travel there for her is routine, the dual Syrian-Swedish citizen said, adding that plenty of people in Syria regularly plan trips to visit relatives in other countries, including the United States.
“I have friends; I have the people that I share my nationality, history, everything with,” she said Tuesday from Beirut, in neighoring Lebanon. Despite Syria’s ongoing civil war and the Islamic State militant group’s occupation, life goes on. “It's just a good feeling to be there,” she added.
When Donald Trump urged Monday for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., his comments were nearly unanimously excoriated by Democrats and Republicans alike as unconstitutional. But just one day later, the House was pushing a bill with overwhelming bipartisan support to crack down on the current visa waiver program, which allows travelers from 38 countries to visit the U.S. without applying for visas first. If the vote passes, it won’t necessarily stop terrorists from entering the U.S., said foreign national advocacy organizations, which have criticized the bill for discriminating against certain dual nationals and recent visitors of "designated countries of concern" -- not to mention for its hypocrisy.
“Donald Trump is out there with the pomp and the inflammatory rhetoric, but behind the scenes, we're seeing this type of policy being legislated and put into law,” said Jamal Abdi, executive director for the National Iranian-American Council Action (NIAC), a civic action group in Washington. “It singles people out based on their nationality, and we feel that it sets up a discriminatory system where for Europeans of Iranian descent, they will face new challenges to the U.S.”
Younan, 24, is one of many Syrian nationals and recent visitors there who could be adversely affected by Tuesday’s scheduled vote to restrict the American visa waiver program. Under the new legislation -- which has also been criticized for not fully preventing potential terrorists’ entry into the U.S., since it relies largely on individuals to self-report travel to those countries or for customs officers to recognize those countries’ stamps in the visitor’s passport -- she would be unable to enter the country unhampered. Younan did so last fall, when she came to New York City to visit friends. But if she is required to apply for a visa, she won’t visit the U.S. again, she said. Beyond being too time- and energy-consuming for her, it’s unfair.
— NIAC Action (@NIACAction) December 8, 2015
“It's discrimination,” she said. “It just makes us feel so excluded from the United States by not being able to visit them and not even be able to be a tourist and enjoying [sic] the culture. That can't teach us anything. They're always trying to introduce us to democracy, but then they put all these restrictions on us.”
Along with urging other countries to adopt anti-fraud e-passports outfitted with microchips (and demanding they share counterterrorism information with the U.S.), the legislation would also add steps to ensure travelers are screened through Interpol databases. Tuesday’s vote comes in the wake of recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, that left a combined 144 people dead and sent the U.S. into a frenzy of debate on how best to balance national security and counterterrorism needs with civil liberties.
The House bill, backed by U.S. President Barack Obama, comes amid similar efforts by the Senate to pass legislation banning visa-free entry from Iraq and Syria and requiring first-time visitors under the visa waiver program to undergo biometric fingerprint and photograph screenings at U.S. embassies or consulates in their home countries before arriving at a U.S. port of entry. The biometric screening stipulation in the Senate bill, put forward by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has faced criticism for being cumbersome and expensive to implement, with little measurable impact on national security.
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) December 8, 2015
The most draconian aspect of the House’s bill is the potential it has to trigger a response from other countries, Abdi said. By nature of the visa waiver program, any changes the U.S. makes can in turn be imposed on itself by the 38 countries it shares the program with. NIAC Action launched a petition urging its members to call or email congressional representatives asking them to vote against the bill.
“It seems that the House bill threatens to set up an entirely new class of American citizens,” he said. “If you’re an American citizen, but you happen to have family from Iran and such that you are classified as an Iranian national, you will not be entitled to the same rights as other American citizens who hold the same passport you do.”
But politicians and advocates of the bill have argued that policies must adapt along with the country’s changing security environment. Marc Frey, former director of the visa waiver program and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C., said while he thinks the bill should make exceptions for legitimate travel from the affected countries — such as humanitarian reasons or family emergency reasons — the proposed program reforms are “entirely appropriate” given current events.
"The [program], like any good security program, needs to evolve in the light of current threats," he said, noting that the visa waiver program underwent reforms in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, such as the 2007 addition of the electronic system for travel authorization screening.
"Its reforms, the Interpol screening requirements, the acceleration of the passport requirements, the ensuring compliance on the information-sharing pieces I think are all sensible reforms that will help [the Department of Homeland Security] and the government more generally address the current threat environment, including the foreign fighter issue."