The original version of the Visa Waiver Program allowed all citizens of the 38 countries listed to travel to the U.S. without a visa for a maximum of 90 days. President Obama signed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act (HR 158) into law on December 18, 2015 part of the 2016 budget. The law states that people who are of Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, or Sudanese descent but are citizens or dual citizens of any of the 38 countries, including the European Union, must get a visa to travel to the United States where previously only a passport was required. Those who were born in Iran but then became naturalized citizens of the European Union are automatically still considered dual citizens in Iran if their fathers are Iranian.
After recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Congressmen had quickly moved to write several bills to become law in the new year and according to the Los Angeles Times, “The bill was given added urgency following the San Bernardino terror attack.” Ironically, neither Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia, the current or previous nationalities of the two alleged terrorists, are listed on the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act.
I spoke with my mother’s cousin Fahti Zolfaghari and her husband Morad Fakrai about the new Visa Waiver Program. Both were born in Iran but became naturalized citizens of the U.S.; Fakrai gained citizenship in 1995 and Zolfaghari in 2000. They had both lived in the U.S. for at least 15 years before becoming citizens.
Zolfaghari explained, “There’s a lot of politics in [the bill], it’s not just protecting the people.” It seems odd that Iran was put onto this list, but Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were not. Politically, one can speculate that Saudi Arabia was not included in this list because it is technically an ally of the U.S. While relations between the U.S. and Iran are improving, visible through the recently lifted economic sanctions and the current nuclear deal, HR 158 of the Visa Waiver Program is an unexpected retrogression.
According to Zolfaghari, “the impact to us, here in the U.S., is that we’re afraid that the E.U. or the other countries are going to reciprocate,” which would mean that those of Iranian descent or those who have visited the four countries listed would be required to get a visa to travel to the E.U. This seems a likely outcome, as the Visa Waiver Program is based on reciprocity and cooperation, and would drastically affect Iranian-Americans and others.
Fakrai said that it is unusual that the E.U. has not already retaliated because, “Typically, they [the same legislation] go into effect at the same time.” Zolfaghari explained that “all the journalists, or the athletes that [have traveled to the four countries in the past five years]… if they [the E.U.] reciprocate, it’s going to apply to them too.” This makes it difficult for businesses who want to have markets in both Iran and the U.S.
On the surface, this may not seem important to some people who might ask, why can’t they just get visas? But it is not just the fact that Iranian-Europeans are now required to get visas, and that Iranian-Americans could potentially be in the same situation. As Zolfaghari states, “it’s more than that. It’s the whole concept of it, it’s not a big deal, you know, getting the visa is going to be just an inconvenience, but it’s the whole concept that we’re going to be treated differently because of the country that we were born in.” Fakrai added that the law treats these foreigners as second-class citizens and is perpetuating discrimination.
For those who were born in Iran and have been citizens of the E.U. for years and now have children, even their children who may have never been to Iran would be forced to get visas to travel to the U.S. It is upsetting to those who went through long processes to become citizens to have their validity as citizens of their country questioned.
I asked Zolfaghari and Fakrai what they though could be a less discriminatory way to prevent terrorism in the U.S. Fakrai said, “You know, a lot of it has to do with education, a lot of it has to do with good understanding, it has a lot to do with amount of information that the countries can gather. It’s not just the law, it is also the practice.” The U.S. should also be paying more attention to countries not listed that are more of a direct threat to the U.S.
Fakrai pointed out, “That’s a very complicated question… I mean I’m sure a lot of people have been trying to figure it out for years, with all that’s going on in the Mideast, so I wish there was a simple answer to it, unfortunately, there really isn’t.” The truth is that this new law that has been implemented is unnecessary in minimizing terrorism. Fakrai reasoned that, “The only problem is, most terrorists [who] want to come to a country to conduct acts of terrorism, they don’t get a visa. They get to that country one way or another, without going through a visa process.”
Fakrai and Zolfaghari are both members of National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a non-profit organization that “lobbies for the interests of the Iranian Americans,” according to Fakrai. NIAC recently sent letters to the 38 foreign embassies that the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act includes in an attempt to convince these countries to not reciprocate and restrict Iranian Americans from travel to the E.U. and others.
What lies ahead for Iranian-Americans is in the hands of the 38 countries involved and the U.S.
The Department of Homeland Security issued an important notice stating that it is attempting to make changes to the new Visa Waiver Program. Regardless, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act causes more discrimination than national security.