Discriminatory ‘VISA Act’ Moves Forward
Washington, DC – Legislation targeting Iranian and other visa seekers for enhanced security measures moved forward in the House today after a contentious committee debate. The bill, which would also subject visa applicants and their American family petitioners to DNA testing, was advanced by the House Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, setting up a potential final vote before the full House within weeks.
Democrats denounced the Visa Integrity and Security Act (“VISA Act,” or H.R. 5203) as discriminatory and warned it would bring legal immigration to an effective halt. But Republican lawmakers defended the bill, including the bill’s lead sponsor Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) who defended it as a protection against terrorists pursuing “weaponized visas.”
Visa waiver discrimination
In a statement entered into the Congressional record, NIAC Action opposed the bill on the grounds that it imposes further burdens on Iranian Americans and threatens student exchanges and other bridge-building efforts with the Iranian people. The statement warned that the VISA Act represents a further slide toward discrimination on the basis of national origin and family heritage on the heels of Visa Waiver Program restrictions included in H.R.158. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) similarly argued in an opposition statement that the legislation would compound the discriminatory burdens now in place against Iranians and other dual nationals targeted by H.R.158. Not only would certain dual nationals from VWP countries be subject to the visa process, unlike their fellow citizens, but they would also be subject to additional visa delays with the passage of the VISA Act.
Lawmakers revived the debate over the dual national provisions of H.R. 158 during the hearing. The top Democrat on the Immigration Subcommittee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who supported the visa waiver bill but has since worked to mitigate the impact on dual nationals, noted that implementation of H.R.158 has brought complications to light – particularly with respect to the impact on dual nationals. She described meeting with an Iranian-American engineer who was experiencing difficulty in a job interview involving travel as a result of the visa restrictions, presumably as a result of the possibility of reciprocal restrictions. However, Lofgren argued, while H.R.158 included “ample waiver authorities” that administration can utilize to resolve unintended consequences and thus earned Democratic support, the VISA Act includes no waivers.
Lofgren also criticized comments by Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who suggested the U.S. should export its values rather than “importing [immigrants’] problems.” Lofgren noted the contributions of Iranian Americans, saying “Iranian Americans in the Silicon Valley have played a substantial, positive role in the creation of technology companies, in the venture capital world…to think that our country has not greatly benefited from that community would be a huge mistake.”
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan not included
Supporters of the VISA Act repeatedly referred to the San Bernardino shootings and the 9/11 attacks as justifications for further visa restrictions, prompting Democratic lawmakers to point out that the perpetrators of those attacks would not be targeted for enhanced scrutiny under the bill. In one exchange, Lofgren raised the fact that a European who is an Iranian dual national and has family in the U.S. would be subject to enhanced security procedures under the new bill. This prompted the Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte to respond affirmatively, stating “much like Tashfeen Malik (one of the San Bernardino attackers) should have been subject to (those restrictions), as a prospective spouse of a permanent resident of the United States, I think someone who is coming here…from a country that has been the source of terrorist activity should be subject to that higher scrutiny.” Lofgren rhetorted that Malik was Pakistani, and that Pakistan was not among the countries included in the VISA Act. Later she noted that most of the 9/11 hijackers were largely from Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia was not listed either. Rather than have Congress list a set of countries to target, Lofgren said “we need to be nimble and flexible in how we deal with the terrorist threat.”
Despite the vigorous debate over the targeting of specific nationalities for heightened security requirements in the VISA Act, a Conyers-Lofgren amendment to repeal those restrictions failed in a partisan vote. Additional amendments were introduced that would have addressed concerns that NIAC Action raised in its letter objecting to the bill. Among those, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) introduced an amendment to strike the higher burden of proof requirements for all visa applicants, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) offered amendments to alter the DNA testing requirements.
Despite the VISA Act’s passage through committee, it does not appear to be on a fast-track to becoming law given largely united Democraticopposition. The VISA Act was challenged with amendments on most of its provisions, and only passed on a partisan basis. While the bill could still pass the House of Representatives on party-line vote, it would still need to pass through the Senate and be signed by the President–offering opponents of the bill several chances to stop it.
Further, the tenor of the hearing – with a key Democrat revisiting the merit of the dual national restrictions of H.R. 158 and noting the contributions of Iranian Americans and other groups to American society – indicates that this bill is likely to receive close scrutiny if it moves forward, at least partially due to the Iranian-American community’s backlash against the passage of H.R. 158.