GOP chairman scolds DHS over visa carve-outs

GOP chairman scolds DHS over visa carve-outs
© Getty Images

The head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee is criticizing the Obama administration for unilaterally changing new restrictions on foreign travelers.

The administration made changes to new rules that barred people who had traveled to or are citizens of Syria, Iran, Iraq or Sudan from coming to the U.S. without a visa, easing some of those barriers.

Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as White House continues to push vaccination effort Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna Vaccine hesitancy among lawmakers slows return to normalcy on Capitol Hill MORE (R-Wis.) this week joined in the chorus of outrage directed at the administration.


On Wednesday evening, Johnson sent a letter demanding that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson explain the legal rationale for the carve-outs.

“Congress has every right to expect full compliance with the new provisions,” he wrote.

The bill excludes people who are dual citizens of the four countries or who have traveled there in recent years from participating in the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel without a visa to the U.S. The measure was passed on the heels of new terror fears following extremist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris. 

The restrictions do not bar the travelers from coming to the U.S., but they do make the process more complicated by requiring that they first obtain a visa.

While implementing the legislation this month, the administration appeared to have widened the exceptions that were intended to be used for national security purposes.

One category of people who may be eligible to travel without a visa specifically applies to those who traveled to Iran for "legitimate business-related purposes" following the adoption of the international nuclear deal last year. Other carve-outs apply for journalists, diplomats, aid workers and businesspeople who have traveled to Iraq. The exemptions will be granted on a case-by-case basis, the State and Homeland Security Departments have said.

Republicans contend that the list of exemptions is illegally broad.

“I can attest that Congress considered and rejected expanding the waiver authority in this way, because these groups of travelers would be hard to verify and any waivers granted would be easy to exploit,” Johnson, who authored the Senate version of the legislation, wrote in this letter this week. 

“In fact, we considered providing no waiver authority for fear that the administration would abuse such authority for its own purposes,” he added. “Unfortunately, it appears that now is the case.”

The list of possible exemptions came after Iran protested the new visa limits, which it said threatened to upset the terms of the nuclear accord. 

This week, Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) said that he would formally rebuke the president for “blatantly circumventing Congress’s intent” with the carve-outs.