New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
February 7, 2016
If you’re an American citizen who has vacationed in Paris or Rome, your trip was probably significantly simplified by the Visa Waiver Program, an agreement between the United States and 38 mostly European countries that lets millions of travelers visit one another’s countries without a visa.
In December, Congress amended this program by passing the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, or H.R. 158. The amendment prevents citizens of these 38 countries who are also citizens of Iran, Syria, Sudan and Iraq from entering the United States without a visa, and also requires visas for citizens who have visited Iran, Sudan, Iraq or Syria since March 2011, whether they went for tourism, business, humanitarian work or to see family.
It was initially unclear what enforcement would look like. Not anymore. While no one is being banned from entering the United States, the new law is making travel much more complicated for many people. In January, the Iranian-British BBC journalist Rana Rahimpour and her young daughter found themselves barred from a New Jersey-bound flight from London. Dozens of Iranian dual nationals have since reported similar problems, from a German-Iranian engineer headed to a conference in San Francisco to a British citizen who complained about having to cancel travel plans because he’d visited his sick grandmother in Iran. Even The Times’s Tehran bureau chief, Thomas Erdbrink, is among H.R. 158’s casualties. “I’m no longer allowed to travel to the @nytimes headquarters without a visa. America, it was fun while it lasted,” the Dutch citizen tweeted.
Given the surge in Islamophobic rhetoric in the United States over the past six months, it isn’t surprising that Congress singled out citizens of (and even visitors to) predominantly Muslim countries for extra scrutiny. Americans are rattled by recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. The Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump at one point even proposed a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims’ entering the United States. It’s a shameful response, but a predictable one.
The surprising thing about H.R. 158 is the way it treats some dual nationals as second-class citizens, ignoring their mixed heritage or their decision to build lives abroad while denying them rights and privileges their compatriots can enjoy. This is un-American.
In asserting that a foreigner with even a tenuous connection to four blacklisted countries is automatically not trustworthy enough to set foot on American soil without extra vetting, Congress makes a set of faulty assumptions: that having ties to these four countries makes any individual automatically suspect; that the four targeted countries pose more of a risk than, say, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, which have exported extremists and radical ideology yet remain conspicuously absent from the list; and, crucially, that no matter what choices a person has made, they should remain bound to their or their parents’ birthplace forever.
Indeed, the ability to start over is one of the principles on which America was founded — but apparently, that’s a worldview that Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi and Sudanese citizens aren’t entitled to.
The politicians behind this bill ignore the fact that naturalization is typically tied to a conscious desire to live in, contribute to and become part of a new community. They don’t consider that many dual nationals of Syria, Iran, Sudan and Iraq may have fled political or military violence, studied abroad or simply chose to start anew.
In fact, dual citizenship has long been an aspiration for many ambitious and wealthy Middle Easterners who feel — understandably, it turns out — that without a Western passport, they cannot work and travel freely and without discrimination. Before changes to the visa waiver program, an Italian daughter of Syrian nationals, or a French Iranian in exile, could present their European papers at any American port of entry and be treated as what they are: Europeans. Now a completely innocent person with a parent born in one of the designated countries can be branded guilty by association. H.R. 158 erases distinctions between foreigners who have perhaps never have left their country of origin and dual nationals who might never have set foot in it at all.
Of course, citizenship is not always a choice. Some dual citizens of Iran, Sudan, Syria or Iraq have parents from two different countries. Others are automatically considered citizens by virtue of their heritage. H.R. 158 ignores the practical difficulty of renouncing one’s citizenship: You can’t just burn your passport and be automatically rid of your national associations, whether you’re Iranian, Israeli or American.
A group of Democratic members of Congress have suggested softening H.R. 158, eliminating the restrictions based on ancestry and creating provisions to exempt traveling humanitarian workers, journalists, researchers and medics. “Fundamentally, people seeking entry into our country should be evaluated based on the specific security risk that they themselves pose — not where their parents are from,” reads their proposal. That’s a good start. The Obama administration later said that such exemptions may be granted, but only on a case-by-case basis — a statement to which some Republican politicians immediately objected.
All countries should do their best to stop people who pose a genuine security threat, regardless of what papers they may carry. But ascribing guilt by association isn’t the way to do it. Our world may not be borderless, but it is full of dual and triple citizens whose numbers are likely to grow. The assumption that every human life can be reduced to an allegiance to one country is old-fashioned; it’s also painfully provincial. Basing a security policy on an outdated philosophy is unlikely to make us safer. It will have the unfortunate effect of making everyone’s world smaller.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com