U.S. announces new visa rules for some Europeans

Alicia A. Caldwell and Bradley Klapper
Associated Press

Washington — The Obama administration tightened restrictions on European and other travelers who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan in the last five years, even as it said the new rules may not apply to those in certain occupations who have traveled for business.

The move quickly angered Republican lawmakers who accused the administration of circumventing the will of Congress.

The administration said Thursday that people who traveled to those countries as journalists, for work with humanitarian agencies or on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations and provincial or local governments may still be eligible to visit the United States without first obtaining a visa. People who have traveled to Iran since July 14, 2015, or Iraq for “legitimate business-related purposes” can also apply to come to the United States under the visa waiver program.

The Homeland Security Department said waivers for some applicants to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, will be granted on a “case-by-case” basis. Those travelers who are denied visa-free travel can still apply for a visa through a U.S. embassy in their home country.

Americans may also end up affected by the new rule, if Europe introduces reciprocal action against U.S. citizens.

“The Obama administration is blatantly breaking the law, a law the president himself signed,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul. “This is not a difference of opinion over statutory interpretation, it is a clear contradiction of the law and the agreement we reached with the White House.”

The Texas Republican said the exemptions announced by the administration were already rejected by Congress. He added that he and his colleagues “will respond and are reviewing our options.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said the move “needlessly compromises our national security and the safety of the American people.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday that the visa waiver program should be reformed, but “singling people out because of their national origin is fundamentally at odds with American values and invites discrimination against American citizens who are dual nationals.”

Citizens of 38 countries, mostly in Europe, are generally allowed to travel to the United States without applying for a visa. But they still have to submit biographical information to ESTA.

New rules governing who can use the program approved by Congress in December are intended to block Europeans who have fought for the Islamic State group and are likely to commit jihadi violence from entering the United States.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said waivers and exemptions would be applied “on a case-by-case basis.” But he had no answer for questions, such as who has Iranian citizenship. Iran’s government claims many people of Iranian heritage as citizens even if they’re unaware of the matter or don’t consider themselves Iranian dual nationals. It’s unclear how the U.S. will approach the issue.

The administration is not yet making changes to limits on visa-free travel for dual nationals.