February 18, 2016

Witnesses Paint Dual Nationals as Terror Threat at Congressional Hearings

New restrictions barring certain dual nationals from visiting the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program “feel like discrimination,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), speaking at a Congressional hearing on the new visa law last week. “There’s a category of millions of Americans, freedom-loving Americans, that could be exposed to discrimination as a result merely of who their parents were,” he observed. Massie, who recently introduced legislation to repeal the dual national restrictions, was joined by a few of his colleagues in expressing concern about the new restrictions. However, much of the two House hearings on the implementation of H.R. 158, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, focused on accusations that the Obama Administration was not enforcing the new restrictions stringently enough.

Two non-governmental witnesses — one from the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the other from the far-right Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) — cast dual nationals, including Iranian Americans specifically, as a security threat deserving of travel restrictions. In her testimony, Jessica Vaughan of CIS took issue with NIAC Action’s argument that the new restrictions were discriminatory and in line with the inflammatory rhetoric from Donald Trump. Instead, Vaughan suggested that all dual nationals should be suspected of dual loyalty:

“The real issue here is dual nationality, not ‘second-class citizenship.’ The fact is that people who retain more than one nationality are indicating that they have not fully renounced their allegiance to their country of origin despite attaining citizenship in another country. Some people have dual nationality for sentimental reasons, others for the convenience of having multiple passports, and some do it to facilitate illicit activity, including espionage and terror. But it is fundamentally a personal choice.”

Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi of FDD claimed that Iranian dual nationals should be considered security threats – highlighting the Iranian-American used car dealer convicted of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. He then suggested all dual nationals were suspect, outlining cases of several Lebanese dual nationals associated with Hezbollah who planned attacks overseas. Curiously, none of the dual nationals linked to terror that were cited by Ottolenghi in his defense of profiling would have actually been barred from traveling without a visa under the new restrictions.

Much of the comments from lawmakers were focused on the Obama administration’s use of a broad waiver in the legislation to exempt certain individuals from the visa restrictions, including aid workers and individuals who have traveled to Iran to conduct business under the nuclear accord. The title of one hearing even claimed that the waivers were issued to “appease” Iran. Vaughan said that activism within the Iranian-American community may have convinced the administration to utilize the waivers, though the waivers issued thus far do not exempt Iranian dual nationals or persons who have traveled to Iran to visit family, as tourists, or for academic purposes. 

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) claimed the administration’s use of the waiver was illegal. However, the State Department’s Hillary Batjer Johnson patiently explained, “The law grants the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive the travel or dual nationality restrictions if he determines that such a waiver is in the law enforcement or national security interest of the United States.” McCaul acknowledged that the waiver is included in the law but stuck to his main point of contention that the administration had requested explicit exceptions in the text of the bill itself during negotiations on the bill, which had been rejected by lawmakers.

Following the over-the-top rhetoric of many of his colleagues, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) injected some levity into the hearing by jokingly asking the government witnesses whether they were part of some secret conspiracy to allow terrorists to come into the United States. Connolly also highlighted the concern felt by many of his constituents who were “apoplectic” about the application of this law because they feel they are “unwitting victims” based on their national background. 

Other lawmakers, however, appeared to have little grasp of how the Visa Waiver Program operates. Among them, Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) suggested that British citizens traveling to Iran for business would be treated more favorably than those traveling to Malaysia because of the waivers. However, unlike travel to Iran, there were never any restrictions on citizens of VWP countries who traveled to Malaysia to begin with. Russell left the hearing still opposed to the use of any waivers.

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