What does the Wilson bill do?
On October 2nd, 2023, Representatives Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) introduced H.R. 5826 – The “No Paydays for Hostage-Takers Act.” The legislation as a whole seeks to deter hostage-taking through the imposition of sanctions and other penalties, which includes a provision banning U.S. travel to Iran.
The legislation would express formal Congressional support for the U.S. to ban travel to Iran. It would require the Secretary of State to decide whether to implement such a ban within 90 days and annually for 6 years.
Section 9 of the Wilson bill declares it is the Sense of Congress that “the Secretary of State should declare United States passports invalid for travel to, in or through Iran” and requires the Secretary of State to issue determinations on whether travel to Iran poses “imminent danger” and “whether the Secretary is exercising his authority to declare United States passports invalid for travel to, in or through Iran.”
The Biden administration could abstain from doing so, though a top Biden official has expressed support for considering such a ban and a formal endorsement and pressure from Congress could settle those considerations in favor of a ban.
NIAC strongly opposes this legislation.
What is the status of the bill right now?
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed the Wilson bill in a committee markup on October 19th, 2023. This means that the bill is now in the queue to be voted on by the entire House of Representatives. We do not yet know when the vote might take place, but we expect it may occur before the end of the calendar year. We are routinely monitoring House voting schedules and will inform when the vote is set to happen.
If the bill passes the House it must still pass the Senate before being sent to the President to be signed into law.. This provides opponents with several opportunities to speak out and stop it from passing into law.
What is NIAC doing to stop the travel ban?
Thankfully, thousands of messages and calls have been sent to Congressional offices opposing a travel ban. NIAC has also been communicating closely with Congressional offices regarding the danger of a ban and why our members and community oppose it.
This has helped lead to direct Congressional opposition to a ban where none previously existed. During the committee hearing on October 19th, we saw several Members of Congress come forward to vocally and convincingly denounce the travel ban. Representative Sara Jacobs (CA-D) also offered an amendment to replace the ban entirely, receiving support from most Democrats on the committee (see the NIAC-endorsed amendment here). During the hearing, Rep. Jacobs stated:
“Annually tens of thousands of Americans travel to Iran to reunite with relatives, celebrate milestones and maintain the familial bonds that distance and politics stretch, but never break…restricting the freedom of movement of ordinary families in the U.S. doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t enhance our national security.”
Additional lawmakers, including Representatives Gregory Meeks (NY-5) and Gerry Connolly (VA-11) expressed support for this amendment as well as for the civil rights of the Iranian American community. Rep. Meeks stated:
“…It is not a small thing to potentially limit the freedom of movement of thousands of Americans, including Iranian Americans with loved ones in Iran. By invalidating U.S. passports for travel to Iran, I have expressed similar concerns in other situations, such as Cuba, where Americans’ freedom of movement has been curtailed…The U.S. government is not an authoritarian or anti-democratic regime. We have long-committed to do all in our power to protect our citizens’ most fundamental human rights. So I support this (Jacobs) amendment, which asks only for precisely what we need here.”
Rep. Connolly also stated:
“…We ought not to be in the position of prohibiting Americans from traveling, frankly, anywhere. As Miss Jacobs points out, by actually facilitating family visits and other interchanges with Iran, we have a better chance over time of effectuating the kind of positive change we want to see…So allowing flexibility and respecting the fact that there are Iranian Americans with family in Iran, and allowing them to have their family connections, their family celebrations, I think it’s really important. I think this (Jacobs) amendment does that, while also allowing us to monitor it to make sure that if there were some severe reason to restrict that travel, the State Department would be monitoring it and informing Congress as to the wise wherefores of that.”
While the amendment was, unfortunately, not adopted due to Republican opposition, it did receive support from a majority of Democrats on the committee – 17 in total – including the Democratic lead of the bill. This puts us in a strong position to raise objections as the bill moves forward and to eventually stop it from passing. However, we must keep up the momentum.
Could it actually pass?
While there is growing Congressional opposition, it is possible that the travel ban bill could pass into law. The entire bill has already secured backing from Republicans and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and – given unanimous Republican support in committee – would likely pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Any legislation that has bipartisan support has at least a decent chance to pass one chamber, and possibly both. At least one Biden administration official, and the former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have also expressed openness to banning travel to Iran. This is why the Iranian-American community needs to mobilize and make clear that its rights are not going to be legislated away.
If passed into law, would it block me from traveling to Iran?
That depends. Travel to Iran on a U.S. passport after a ban would clearly be illegal and carry severe penalties. This would include revocation of your U.S. passport and possible criminal prosecution. Under the ban on travel to North Korea, violators face at least 10 years imprisonment for misuse of a U.S. passport under a first offense. This would render any Americans without dual nationality effectively banned from travel to Iran.
The U.S. does not have jurisdiction over Iranian passports, which many in the diaspora must utilize for travel to Iran, so Iranian Americans would likely fall into a legal gray zone. Travelers would have to think even more carefully about the risks and restrictions, and whether possible legal trouble in the United States would be worth the risks.
This could entail additional scrutiny by Customs and Border officials who may be empowered by a travel ban to detain and harass members of the community who traveled to visit loved ones. We have seen, and initiated formal complaints about, numerous Iranian and Iranian American travelers being detained at U.S. borders and deported or subjected to harsh treatment over the years. Moreover, while dual nationals need to present an Iranian passport to travel to Iran, they need an American passport to return to the United States. Sometimes, U.S. passports are inspected by Iranian officials when flying out of Iran. It is not yet clear if an individual could incur legal trouble – and be threatened with jail time – for merely showing a U.S. passport to Iranian authorities on exiting an airport. Many of these questions are unanswerable at this time.
What other consequences would a travel ban impose?
A ban could bar journalists from travel and deter people-to-people exchange, including academic exchanges and religious travel. U.S.-based journalists who travel to Iran and report from there as well as American travelers who journey to Iran have long-provided new and refreshing perspectives about Iran as a country filled with culture, politics, and stories that humanize the people of Iran. In the long term, fostering people to people ties can be an important step toward reducing the isolation of the people of Iran, reducing tensions, and averting an escalation to war. These opportunities would be threatened by a blanket ban.
Who supports this idea?
This travel ban was first proposed by former President Donald Trump’s Iran Envoy Elliott Abrams – who himself was indicted for his role in covering up the Reagan Administration’s sale of weapons to Iran – who proposed jail time for Americans who attempt to travel to Iran. The ban was then endorsed by Sen. Bob Menendez, one of Congress’ most prominent Iran hawks who is now facing corruption charges for his own nefarious foreign dealings. Now, Rep. Joe Wilson – who helped orchestrate the U.S. travel ban on North Korea in 2017 and is closely aligned with groups like MEK and NUFDI – is leading legislation aimed at making the ban a reality.
How is this related to the ban on travel to North Korea?
Both Elliott Abrams and the Wilson bill reference the 2017 ban imposed on U.S. travel to North Korea, which was instituted by the State Department following the tragic killing of Otto Warmbier following his arrest. At the time, legislation from Rep. Wilson and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) played a major role in convincing the Trump administration to impose the ban. Their legislation would have required the Treasury Department to prohibit financial transactions related to travel to North Korea. This formula was preempted by the State Department imposing a ban on travel under a U.S. passport just a few weeks later.
If such restrictions are replicated on Iran, they would have devastating impacts on Iranian Americans beyond a ban on the use of U.S. passports. It is far from clear that advocates seeking to block travel to Iran would be satisfied with a proposal to stop travel just on U.S. passports.
The ban on travel to North Korea has been in place for six years, after it was extended earlier this year. Under the ban, nobody can travel on a U.S. passport to the country. Violators risk the seizure of their passport and at least 10 years imprisonment under an initial violation.
Iran, of course, is much different than North Korea. Ties between Americans and Iranians are much more extensive, and the risks are arguably greater for an American in totalitarian North Korea.
Is this necessary to stop hostage taking?
No – this bill is not necessary and is not targeted at the problem. Tens of thousands of individuals travel from the U.S. to Iran annually, and most of them travel on their Iranian passports. For many, this travel is the only way to see loved ones, attend weddings or funerals or handle other important business.
Instead, this is a form of collective punishment that should be rejected. Stopping Iran from taking hostages is an important priority and, like other challenges between the U.S. and Iran, must be addressed through a comprehensive diplomatic strategy that can include a mix of targeted pressure on rights violators.
How would Iran respond?
Travel restrictions are often reciprocal between nations and it is quite possible that Iran would respond with a ban of its own: this time targeting Iranian travelers to the United States. This would further sever connections between families, punish prospective Iranian students who have much to offer and other important forms of exchange.
How can I take action?
Sign our action alert here.Back to top