WASHINGTON -- In what could be a sign the administration is moving away from a policy seen as discriminatory, the Obama administration announced Thursday that it is restricting visa-free travel to the U.S. for recent visitors to three additional countries -- but not for dual nationals with those passports.
Under the new restrictions, citizens of the 38 countries that are part of the reciprocal visa-waiver program will lose their visa-free travel status if they have traveled to Libya, Somalia or Yemen within the past five years. Thursday’s announcement is an expansion of a law passed late last year, which revoked the visa-waiver status of people who had recently traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan, and who hold dual citizenship with any of those four countries.
The law was passed in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks, as an effort to increase screening of individuals who are tied to countries with an active terrorist presence. Critics of the new bill questioned the seemingly arbitrary country selection, noting that Saudi Arabia, home to several of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks, was not included on the list.
Others questioned why only Muslim-majority countries were included in the bill.
"We oppose the legislation entirely. It supports the perception that people from certain countries are more prone to terrorism or criminal acts than others," said Yolanda Rondon, staff attorney at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "It refocuses the assumption that Arabs are terrorists. Meanwhile, terrorism is a global phenomenon."
The dual national provision immediately came under fire because it applies to people who inherited citizenship from their parents, even if they have never been to any of the countries the U.S. identifies as a terror threat. The law does not ban anyone from visiting the United States, but they must first apply for a visa -- a process that citizens from the many countries excluded from the visa waiver program go through before coming to America.
Although the initial law passed with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans, dozens of lawmakers later expressed concern that restricting visa-free travel based on citizenship is discriminatory. There have since been bipartisan calls to reverse the provision.
Likely in response to this backlash, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would not apply visa-waiver restrictions to dual nationals of Libya, Somalia or Yemen. But the preexisting law, which restricts visa-free travel by dual nationals of the first four countries included in the bill, remains in effect. A DHS spokesman declined to comment on why dual nationals of the three new countries on the list would not face restrictions, while those added earlier still would.
The State Department issued guidance last month suggesting it could provide waivers to some dual nationals of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan, to allow visa-free travel to the U.S. on a case-by-case basis. The administration also announced it would waive the restrictions on a case-by-case basis for people who visited the countries for work or humanitarian purposes.
Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) formally asked the administration this month for a more formal description of how to prevent discrimination against dual nationals who have not recently traveled to the listed countries -- and who are, in some cases, fleeing oppression from those countries.
"We have received assurances that forthcoming guidance will make clear that the United States will not discriminate against any travelers based solely on ancestry -- or, in turn, have such limitations imposed on Americans traveling abroad," they wrote in a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Some Republicans say that President Barack Obama's administration is selectively enforcing the law by overusing its authority to exclude certain individuals from the restrictions. "The Obama administration is blatantly breaking the law," said Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, last month.
"President Obama is again putting his relationship with Iran's supreme leader over the security of Americans. He cannot rewrite the law to appease foreign governments -- he should instead pay attention to his own," continued McCaul, responding to assurances from the administration that they would implement the new law in a way that would not impede Europeans from doing business with Iran, a potential violation of the Iran nuclear deal.
McCaul, who recently called for restricting travel to individuals who have traveled to Libya, applauded the administration on Thursday for adding three more countries to the list, but said he still had "grave concerns" that the White House was trying to "appease" Iran.
The story has been updated with comment from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.