Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act short on prevention but punitive towards Iranian Americans

Perhaps one of the most affected group of American citizens adversely impacted by the Visa Waiver Improvement Act of 2015 (H.R. 158), as amended and set for inclusion in the omnibus appropriations legislation, is the Iranian American community.  H.R. 158 has caused an uproar in the Iranian American community, many of whom believe they are being unjustly targeted by a piece of legislation that falls short of its main goal of ensuring our nation’s security needs and interests.  

The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of 38 participating countries to travel to the U.S., Europe, Japan, and South Korea without a visa for stays of 90 days or less. While H.R.158 would implement improvements to the Visa Waiver program, Section 3 of the bill would blanketly exclude dual nationals from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria or anyone who has travelled to those countries in the past five years from the program.   

{mosads}Because the program is based on reciprocity, this would most likely trigger similar restrictions on American citizens from European and other participating countries. It will thus lead to discrimination against Americans based on national origin in that a U.S. passport held by an American of Iranian descent is treated differently than a US passport held by an American of other national origins. Iranian Americans who wish to travel to Iran to visit family and loved ones are only permitted to enter Iran if they carry an Iranian passport, so that dual citizenship is a necessity and not a choice. 

What is remarkable to many Iranian Americans is that that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any individuals who travel to Iran have become radicalized or committed acts of terror. On the contrary, most take with them a deep appreciation of American values and beliefs.  Moreover, the Islamic State is a sworn enemy of Iranians, making the bill doubly egregious in discriminating against the one American ethnic minority group that is even more removed from the terrorists than others. To place a group of American dual citizens into a de facto suspicious category while leaving out other dual citizens of the many countries that ISIS operates in is ineffective policy at best and highly discriminatory at worst. 

Finally, the bill goes counter to American foreign policy interests in two ways. First, to the extent that the bill discourages Iranian Americans from future travel to Iran, it plays into the hand of those hardliners in Iran who would like to keep the country completely isolated from the West, and inhibit social and economic reform and moderation. Second, if passed with its current language, the bill will penalize European business travelers to Iran by excluding them from the U.S. visa waiver program. This could be interpreted by Iranian opponents of the deal as a violation of the JCPOA. Whether one supported the deal or not, it is of critical importance for the U.S. not be seen as violating the agreement or spirit of the JCPOA, otherwise it could hamper our ability to effectively snap back sanctions against Iran if they violate the terms of the agreement.   

The United States is host to the largest expatriate community of Iranians in the world. Iranian Americans have contributed to the economic strength, cultural diversity and political process of the United States. They serve as government officials, in the military and law enforcement, working to uphold the U.S. Constitution and protect all Americans. In the tragic San Bernardino incident, an Iranian American woman was one of the victims of the terrorists and an Iranian American medic was one of the first responders on the scene.

As members of Congress vote for the Visa Waiver Program reforms under inclusion in the omnibus legislation, they should be mindful that they are adversely impacting a group of Americans based on their national origin or legitimate travel plans in the final passage of legislation. Creating two classes of American passport holders is highly discriminatory and un-American at its core.

Austin is the executive director of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA). Ghorban is the director of Government Affairs and Policy for PAAIA.   


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