Despite a gaffe regarding the visa waiver program made during a statement last year late last year, the Obama Administration has, in fact, plans to implement restrictions to the visa waiver program. The changes were approved by Congress last year, and are set to go into effect today.
What is the “visa waiver” program?
In short, the visa waiver program allows citizens in 38 participating countries to visit the U.S. without a visa.
Almost all of the participating countries are in Europe or other parts of the “Western” (read: White) world, but in recent years have expanded to include individual countries in Asia and South America. The U.S. maintains that citizens must hold a biometric passport to travel to the U.S. under the visa waiver program.
What changes should we expect to see in the program?
Because of recent concerns about safety concerns about ISIS proliferation and “radicalization” in parts of the Middle East, the administration is requiring some people who would otherwise qualify for the program to apply for visas to travel to the U.S. Specifically, these changes target:
- Anyone who has traveled through Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and/or Syria since March 2011
- Anyone who holds a dual-citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and/or Syria
Anyone who falls under this criteria is not barred from entry to the U.S., but will have to forego the previous waiver to apply for a formal visa to visit the U.S.
As of now, the Secretary of Homeland Security can opt to waive these changes on a case-by-case basis.
Why are these changes drawing fire from critics?
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), among other opponents, challenged these changes as discriminatory in a letter to Congress, writing, “It is wrong and un-American to punish groups without reason solely based on their nationality, national origin, religion, gender, or other protected grounds.” They note that Syria, for example, confers citizenship upon lots of foreign-born people through parentage. Because of this, citizens of visa waiver-eligible countries with Syrian parents would be unable to qualify for a visa waiver to the U.S.
Others have criticized the changes because they are not time-restrcited, meaning that they may be permanent changes.
Critics on the right are upset that the Secretary of Homeland Security retains discretion in applying, the changes. Reps. Candace Miller (R-MI) and Michael McCaul (R-TX) denounced the discretionary power in a statement, saying, “All waivers announced by the White House were explicitly rejected by Congress during our negotiations with the Administration,” they said in a statement. “This is not a difference of opinion over statutory interpretation, it is a clear contradiction of the law.”