GOP explodes in anger as feds create Iran carve-out for visas

Greg Nash

Furious Republicans assailed the Obama administration Thursday for making changes to a visa entry program for foreign tourists that they characterized as illegal.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Thursday announced changes to the easy-entry visa waiver program, which allows citizens from 38 countries — including Australia, France and Japan — to enter the United States without a visa.

The DHS said its new policy will not prohibit people from the 38 countries from entering the U.S. if they have recently traveled to or are dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria, which are considered hotbeds of terrorism.

Instead, those people — who otherwise would have been eligible to participate in the visa waiver program — will have to obtain a visa through the State Department.

However, the administration is also creating a carve-out solely for Iran, with visa waivers handed out on “a case-by-case basis” to people who have traveled there for "legitimate business-related purposes" following adoption of the nuclear deal last year. 

Some journalists, diplomats and aid workers traveling to and from the four countries would also receive waivers, the DHS said. 

Republicans blasted the announcement, saying President Obama is abusing a minor provision in the law to create a series of loopholes aimed at placating Iran.

“The Obama administration is blatantly breaking the law, a law the president himself signed,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) — the author of the underlying bill — said in a joint statement on Thursday.

“President Obama is again putting his relationship with Iran’s supreme leader over the security of Americans,” they added. “He cannot rewrite the law to appease foreign governments — he should instead pay attention to his own.” 

The visa waiver law passed last year was intended to close what both parties have described as a dangerous loophole that could allow European nationals involved with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to come to the United States.

The legislation passed by Congress retained the option for the Obama administration to waive the visa requirement if someone’s travel was “in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States.” 

Secretary of State John KerryJohn Kerry5 reasons Trump's final debate performance sealed his 2016 coffin US pledges to do all it can to fight 'grave threat' of nuclear North Korea Armani, Batali among guests at White House state dinner MORE caused a stir last month when he suggested the visa waivers would be used to help encourage businesses to enter Iran, following implementation of the landmark international nuclear accord this month.

Iran had previously characterized the new visa waiver measures as an unfair attack on its ability to do business with the rest of the world. 

McCaul and Miller on Thursday said extra measures for Iran were discussed and "explicitly rejected" during negotiations over the visa waiver bill with the administration.

Rep. Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteReport: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas FTC proposes reforms to crack down on patent trolls GOP chairmen slam 'unusual restrictions' on FBI Clinton probe MORE (R-Va.), the head of the House Judiciary Committee, on Thursday said the administration has decided to “abuse” the waivers “in the face of reason and congressional intent.”

“The Obama Administration is essentially rewriting the law by blowing wide open a small window of discretion that Congress gave it for law enforcement and national security reasons,” he said in a statement. “In fact, the categories of people that the Obama Administration is exempting from the law were expressly rejected by Congress.”

In December, Goodlatte, McCaul, Miller and other key Republicans told Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson that they were “deeply concerned” that the “narrowly intended” waiver will be “ignored” to smooth the path for Iran.

“This letter serves to dispel any notion that the congressional intent would allow the waiver authority to be used for business travelers,” they wrote

White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday said the measures were intended to balance security and economic interests.

“We want to make sure that we are doing everything to keep the country safe,” Earnest said. “But we also don’t want to unnecessarily disadvantage American business that are trying to do business overseas.”

Concerns about Europeans with ties to ISIS spiked in November, following the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

All of the attackers involved in the Paris violence are believed to have been European nationals, meaning they likely would have been able to travel to the U.S. without a visa.

Legislation changing the visa waiver program sailed through the House in December and was ultimately included in a sweeping funding bill signed into office by Obama at the end of the year.

The visa requirements will only apply to dual citizens and people who have visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria after March 1, 2011.