Schumer, State feud on Israel

Sen. Charles Schumer and the State Department are at odds over whether the American government is systematically denying Israeli visa applications.

The New York Democrat points to a dramatic increase in refusals of Israeli visas and recent discussions between his office and the State Department in arguing there has been a policy shift at Foggy Bottom, while the State Department maintains there has been no change.

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“All visa applications are reviewed individually in accordance with the requirements of U.S. immigration law,” State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala told The Hill.

“When any individual makes a U.S. visa application anywhere in the world, a consular officer reviews the facts of the case and makes a determination of eligibility based on U.S. law.”

But Schumer argues the State Department is summarily rejecting applications for young Israelis planning to travel in the United States after the completion of their compulsory military service, but before they complete their educations.

The refusal rate for Israeli visa applicants, while fluctuating somewhat from year to year, has spiked from 2.5 percent in fiscal 2007 to 9.7 percent last year, a near 400 percent increase, according to State Department figures.

A review of State Department data found no across-the-board trend toward more visa rejections, as some countries — South Korea, for instance — have seen their refusal rates rise even more than Israel, while others — including China — have fallen significantly.

 The jump in the refusal rate for Israel has captured the attention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC), one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.

“We are concerned about this issue and we will be working with the administration and Congress to address this concern,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Witt-mann said.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Schumer criticized the perceived policy shift as “arbitrarily and capriciously” excluding  “thousands of visitors who will come here to eat at our restaurants, shop at our stores, and stay at our hotels.”

In questioning the agency about the increase, Schumer’s staff concluded that U.S. consulates have developed a policy of denying applications for Israelis of student age, he said.

His office also argues the State Department agency is applying to its reviews broad reservations stemming from the actions of a number of young Israeli nationals who have violated the terms of their visas while in the U.S.

The shift comes amid heightened government scrutiny of immigration fraud involving Israeli nationals involved with selling cosmetics made with minerals that purportedly come from the Dead Sea.

The products, marketed as having unique healing and beautification properties, are sold in malls across 36 states, according to a 2010 diplomatic report looking at the legality of the multimillion-dollar industry.

“Unfortunately, its U.S. presence is not entirely ‘clean,’ for there are known issues of … visa holders working illegally,” according to the cable, which was prepared for State Department consular offices and later leaked by WikiLeaks.

Concerns that Israeli nationals were violating the terms of their visas by taking American jobs in the Dead Sea cosmetics industry prompted the policy change, according to Schumer’s office.

The informal policy was later expanded from applying just to those fresh off military service to all Israeli nationals of student age, contends the lawmaker’s staff, which accuses the State Department of misinterpreting the law.

“Needless to say, even if there is a concern that a small segment of a group will violate their visas, this is no reason to have a policy of presumptively denying visas for an entire group of foreign nationals from one of our most important allies and global partners in the world,” Schumer wrote in his letter to Kerry.

The Israeli Embassy declined to comment on the issue, with a representative saying officials had been barred from speaking to the media due to the escalation of an unrelated labor dispute involving the Israeli Diplomatic Corps.

In his letter, Schumer urged the State Department to work with the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to crack down on those who break the terms of their visas rather than refuse applications for potential violators.

“This arbitrary practice of categorically denying visas to all would-be young travelers due to the actions of a few bad apples is unjustified and counterproductive for the U.S. economy and should end immediately,” Schumer said.

Peter Sullivan contributed.