Concerns Over New Visa Requirements Rise As Travelers Are Barred From The U.S.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

A traveler gathers his luggage at the San Francisco International Airport, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015.

Many travelers who previously visited the United States without a visa can no longer do so, according to recent changes in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, raising concerns about whether travelers will be penalized simply for their ethnicity.

The U.S. State Department announced on Thursday that the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, which was passed last December, is now being enforced. The law doesn’t allow people who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan since March 1, 2011 — or those who are dual citizens of those countries — to visit the United States without a visa. The changes affect citizens of the 38 countries that are part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, who were previously allowed to visit the United States for 90 days without first applying for a visa.

“Congress deserves much of the blame and at a minimum should act swiftly to repeal the discriminatory language that will block people from visiting the U.S. visa free simply because of where they were born or where their family is from,” said Jamal Abdi, Policy Director of the National Iranian American Council, in an email to ThinkProgress.

The announcement comes after BBC journalist Rana Rahimpour, who has dual UK-Iranian nationality, was stopped from boarding a plane to the United States on Wednesday because she didn’t have a visa. She told the Guardian that she was “devastated” because she was going to visit her brother after a year and half. She tweeted about her experience while at the airport, and posted a picture of herself crying next to her 2-year-old daughter.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will waive the new visa requirements on a case-by-case basis for those traveling on official duty on behalf of an international organization, regional organization, or sub-national government; those traveling for humanitarian work; and journalists traveling for reporting. Those traveling for business to Iran may also be exempt, so as not to interfere with implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal.

Still, many are concerned about how the law will be enforced and what will happen afterward.

There are some fears that countries that are part of the Visa Waiver Program will adopt similar policies against U.S. citizens who are dual nationals or who have traveled to the four countries recently. The clause on dual nationals, which is still quite vague, could also introduce issues. According to nationality laws in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan, someone is automatically a citizen if their father has citizenship — which means that this law could potentially impact a large amount of people simply based on their ethnicity.

A bill introduced in Congress last week is trying to limit the impact of the visa changes for dual nationals. If passed, the Equal Protection in Travel Act would exempt dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan from the recent changes to the Visa Waiver Program — but those who have traveled to the four countries in the past five years would still be affected.