December 8, 2015

Will Congress Use Trump’s Racist Rhetoric to Create Second Class Americans?

If you thought Donald Trump’s divisive, bigoted and blatantly racist rhetoric was just a reflection of the silliness we always face during primary campaigns, think again. This bigotry is not only dominating the news cycle and winning Trump Republican primary votes. It’s directly trickling into to new legislation that Congress is currently considering — legislation that will effectively create two classes of Americans. Americans with Middle Eastern or Muslim background, and Americans without that background.

Here’s how: Congresswoman Candice Miller (R-MI) introduced a bill (H.R.158), set for a House vote today, that revises the Visa Waiver Program. That program enables citizens to travel within 38 countries including the U.S., Europe, Japan, and South Korea, without a visa. Miller’s bill changes the program by excluding dual-nationals from Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan or anyone who has travelled to those countries in the past five years from the program. So if you are an Iranian-Brit or Syrian-Brit who grew up in the UK and haven’t set foot in Iran or Syrian for the past 30 years, you would be barred from the program simply because of your country of origin.

But it gets worse.

Precisely because the visa waiver program is based on reciprocity, it will very likely trigger reciprocal restrictions from Europe and participating countries. So if the US, for instance excludes Iraqi-Europeans from the program, Europe would likely exclude Iraqi-Americans from the program in turn.

And then suddenly, Congress’s actions will have led to the creation of two-classes of American passport holders.

America knows, of course, all too well what it means when Americans are legislated to be unequal in the eyes of the law. This is discriminatory, it is draconian, and it is a dangerous slippery slope.

But the bill is more than just about visa waivers. If the principle of inequality it espouses is established, then it may be visa waivers today, but right to education tomorrow.

Here’s how it began.

The bill is modeled off of legislation introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) which would bar individuals who have travelled to Iraq or Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 from coming to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.

The effort to close certain loopholes in the program gained momentum in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, and the subsequent effort by House Republicans – prodded on by most of the GOP Presidential candidates – to pass legislation to block the U.S. from accepting Syrian refugees.

That legislation passed the House and, alarmingly to some senior Democrats, attracted almost fifty House Democrats who crossed lines to support it. Concerned that the political pressure was too great to hold off that bill from passing into law above the President’s veto, thanks in no small part to toxic rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump, some lawmakers calculated that they could dampen the appetite for xenophobic retribution by pursuing restrictions on the Visa Waiver Program.

While there were legitimate “loopholes” in the program, even the Feinstein and Flake bill went too far in the eyes of some organizations, particularly Arab American and civil liberties groups, who criticized it as disproportionately affecting Arab Americans and penalizing people who had engaged in humanitarian work.

The bill that was produced by House Republicans, however, goes far beyond what Senators Feinstein and Flake had initially proposed in the Senate. They upped the ante with a new proposal; instead of merely barring people who travelled to the primary states where ISIS operates, Iraq and Syria, they added provisions to include states designated as State Sponsors of Terrorism–which adds Iran and Sudan, but not, for instance, the country where fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers came from, Saudi Arabia.

However, they went even further than that and decided to also add a whole new category to restrict: individuals who are dual-nationals of these countries – Americans who also hold another passport.

The bill now looks destined for passage as senior Democrats have signed off on it–despite its glaring problems. What remains to be seen is whether the Senate passes its own version that leaves out the egregious sections and those can be stripped out in conference. Or, the provision may be added as a rider to the Appropriations bill that must pass in order to keep the government running. Whether the sections targeting people based on their nationality remains intact will be decided in negotiations on the final bill.

Among the victims in San Bernardino was an Iranian-American woman who had left the country in the 1980s to escape persecution against her as a Christian. Among the very first first-responders who arrived on the scene that day was an Iranian American who serves as a SWAT team embedded-medic, honing combat training he learned serving in Iran’s military during the Iran-Iraq war.

If Rep. Miller’s bill passes, and if the EU reciprocates as it likely will, then these two American heroes will be relegated to second class citizens.

And that will probably just be the beginning of America’s journey back into an era it had worked so hard to escape.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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