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U.S. Visa Rules May Burden Relatives Abroad, Advocates Say

International travelers wait to have their passports checked at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last year.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
International travelers wait to have their passports checked at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last year.

A new restriction aimed at keeping terrorists out of the U.S. is proving troublesome. Critics say it will keep families apart, and it's already causing some diplomatic difficulties.

The provision, passed by Congress in a spending bill last week, tightens the so-called visa waiver program, which allows residents of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa. Many of those are European countries.

But if citizens of those countries have dual citizenship with Iraq, Syria or other nations with significant terrorist activity — including Iran, they no longer qualify. They will now have to go through additional screening, even if they haven't recently visited those countries. Additionally, anyone who has visited any of those places in the past five years is no longer eligible for the visa waiver program.

Lawmakers in favor of the change expressed concern about the thousands of Europeans who have gone to Syria to fight alongside ISIS. They could hypothetically go from Syria to France and then fly to the U.S.

Mina Bagherzadeh, however, says the new rules will make it tougher for her to see her family. Bagherzadeh was hoping she'd see her sister this summer, and maybe even her elderly mother.

Bagherzadeh is a 47-year-old Iranian American who lives in Washington, D.C. Her mother and sister live in Germany, where the family fled after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Each summer, the family members take turns visiting each other, and this summer, Bagherzadeh says, it was their turn to come here. But now, it will be a little more complicated.

"They will now need to go visit a U.S. consulate, file the application, pay the fee, do an interview, and wait and hope that they will be given a visa to come and visit us," she said.

That's because Bagherzadeh's sister and mother are dual nationals — citizens of Germany and Iran — and so no longer qualify for the visa waiver program.

It will cost her sister and mother $160 to apply for the visa they didn't need the last time they visited here. This may seem like a minor irritation — a bit of a travel hassle. But for Bagherzadeh, it's more than that. She says she's taught her two young daughters about the U.S.'s values and how lucky they are to have been born in the U.S. But now she feels that as an Iranian American, she and her family are being singled out.

"I feel a sense of being different than my American peers," she said. "I don't think that's right and that's not what this country is built on and I fear that is what my daughters are going to feel as well."

Joanne Lin of the American Civil Liberties Union notes that dual nationals from Iraq, Sudan and Syria are affected as well.

"This is patent discrimination by nationality and parentage," she says. "It's wrong — it's un-American — [that] in this country people are not judged by their nationality or their citizenship of their parents."

Lin wants Congress to take another look at the law that she says was passed as a "knee-jerk" reaction to the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. For one thing, she says, the European Union may want to retaliate with its own changes, making it more difficult for Americans to travel without a visa to EU countries.

"Because the program is based on reciprocity, how are the European governments going to respond to this new law?" she said. "Will the EU response will have any impact on US citizens traveling abroad to Europe?"

And there is another issue with the new requirement.

The government of Iran is objecting, saying the provision will limit travel and interfere with the resumption of economic ties between Iran and the West — ties that are allowed if Iran complies with the recently signed nuclear agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry sent a letter to his Iranian counterpart, saying in essence not to worry, that the provision can be waived.

That, in turn, has outraged Republican members of Congress and other critics of the accord. Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says that Iran "is in no position to be complaining."

"[Iran is] in flagrant violations of UN Security Council resolutions, it's holding American hostages, and it's fanning the flames of sectarian warfare in the Middle East that is certainly proving to be a massive recruitment boon to ISIS," he adds. "This is exactly the wrong time to be giving Iran any more unilateral benefits."

The Department of Homeland Security has yet to outline how the new law will be implemented. And Republicans in Congress are vowing to call in Kerry to explain his assertion that the provision can be waived.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.