Strong Evidence the US Already Discriminating on Giving Visas for Muslim Foreigners

The new rules seem designed to discriminate against people of Iraqi, Iranian, Sudanese, and Syrian descent.

Photo Credit: flickr

London-based BBC journalist Rana Rahimpour was recently prohibited from boarding a flight to New York because she was born in Iran. Rahimpour was traveling with her daughter and had sought to surprise her family members at a birthday celebration in New Jersey. “To be treated differently from other British citizens because of my Iranian heritage is very distressing,” she said.

Even more disturbingly, scientists at Iran's prestigious Sharif University recently announced they will have to indefinitely postpone the Fifth International Iran Conference on Quantum Information. “We had to make this difficult decision in order not to put our international invitees and participants, and the conference itself, in an inconvenient and undecided position because of the new U.S. bill concerning the visa-waiver program, which puts restrictions on travelers to Iran,” the institution said on its website.

Just days over the U.S. government implemented sweeping changes to its visa waiver program, concerns are mounting that the new rules have been designed to discriminate against people of Iraqi, Iranian, Sudanese, and Syrian descent, punishing them for their national background.

“The implications are that the U.S. has now opened the door to discriminate against people based on their national origin or family history,” Jamal Adbi, policy director for the National Iranian-American Council, told AlterNet.

Abdi said hundreds of people have already expressed concern to his organization. “We've gotten a lot of worried emails and frantic questions about upcoming visits family members are planning to make,” he explained. “There is a lot of confusion.”

The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 was passed by Congress as part of the omnibus spending bill, signed into law by Obama in late December, and went into effect last week.

For more than a quarter of a century, the U.S. allowed people from select countries—currently numbered at 38—to visit the U.S. without a visa—a policy that is reciprocal. Under the new rules, people who are dual nationals of the four countries, which include Sudan but not South Sudan, will now require a visa to gain entry into the United States. In addition, the rules apply to people who have merely traveled to one of the countries since March 2011, with some minor exceptions.

However, there’s more. According to a fact sheet from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State also claim the right to expand the countries of “concern”—thereby restricting even more people—in the future.

Passed amid rising Islamophobia and racism following the Paris attacks, the new rules were slammed by human rights groups as profoundly unjust. Their impact could be vast, as many of the countries targeted automatically hand down dual citizenship through parents.

But the implications are expected to be far more widespread in days to come.

The European Union's ambassador to the U.S. recently threatened to take reciprocal action against U.S. citizens, meaning Americans who share national origin with Iran, Sudan, Syria, or Iraq could face future curbs. At a time when large numbers of people are being violently displaced from many of those countries, such laws could delay or prevent family reunification.

Humanitarian groups are warning that the restrictions could discourage aid workers from traveling to countries in vital need of resources.

The rules are having another effect that is far more difficult to measure, Abdi warned: confusion and intimidation in the face of the laws could be enough to prevent many from seeking to travel in the first place.

According to Abdi, this is yet another “political attack against people of Iranian descent.” As if to prove his point, Republican lawmakers complained voraciously last week when the Obama administration slightly eased some rules, saying that people traveling to Iran for “legitimate” business purposes could be exempted on a case-by-case basis.

“The Obama administration is blatantly breaking the law, a law the president himself signed,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) jointly charged on Thursday.

Yet, despite the GOP rhetoric, the new restrictions passed with bipartisan support (with some dissent), and President Obama defended the measure and declined appeals to reject the most extreme provisions.

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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