The Obama administration angered Republicans on Capitol Hill Thursday when it eased visa rules for some European travelers who have visited terror hot spots in the Middle East and Africa. In December, following the San Bernardino terrorist attack, lawmakers passed legislation designed to prevent Europeans who have joined terrorist groups like ISIS from entering the United States.
Under the newly passed Visa Waiver Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, nationals of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan as well as other travelers who have visited those countries since Mar. 1, 2011 now must apply for a visa in order to travel to the U.S.
The Obama administration implemented those changes with a few modifications.
Under the revised requirements, some Europeans who have traveled to those four countries in the last five years may still be allowed to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa if they meet certain criteria.
The administration announced it will use its waiver authority — granted to it in the legislation — to give waivers to travelers who traveled to the terror hot spots as journalists, for work with humanitarian agencies or on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations and sub-national governments on official duty.
Further, an additional waiver was announced for people who have traveled to Iran “for legitimate business-related purposes” since the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal in July. The administration offers waivers for individuals who have traveled to Iraq for business as well.
Within moments of the announcements, two key Republicans accused the administration of “blatantly breaking the law” Obama signed.
“This is not a difference of opinion over statutory interpretation, it is a clear contradiction of the law and the agreement we reached with the White House,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., author of the bill, said in a statement.
Republicans charged that the Obama administration was exploiting its limited authority and compromising national security.
“President Obama and his administration’s decision to abuse their limited waiver authority and allow scores of people who have traveled to or are dual nationals of countries like Iraq and Syria flies in the face of reason and congressional intent,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement.
“The Obama Administration is essentially rewriting the law by blowing wide open a small window of discretion that Congress gave it for law enforcement and national security reasons,” Goodlatte said.
Under the visa program itself, citizens of 38 countries, mostly in Europe, are generally allowed to travel to the United States without applying for a visa. But they still have to submit biographical information to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA.
Last December, after Iran publicly opposed the measure and said that it violates the nuclear agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry promised top Iranian leaders in a letter that Obama would veto the legislation and that the administration would work to uphold the nuclear agreement.
The Obama administration has a history of easing restrictions for travelers coming to the U.S. from “terror hot spots.”
A disturbing report obtained by Judicial Watch last September showed that the Obama administration granted residency or asylum to 1,519 foreigners who supported terrorism at one time.
In 2014, the Obama administration unilaterally eased restrictions on asylum seekers with loose or incidental ties to terror and insurgent groups. Prior to that, such foreign nationals would have been banned from the country for supporting terrorist causes.