Posted by on February 10, 2014 in Blog

On January 29, H.R. 938 “United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013,” coauthored by the Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Ranking Member Ted Deutch (D-FL) passed unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The section of the bill that AAI and many civil and human rights groups were concerned with was Sec. 9 which pertains to the Visa Waiver Program. The Visa Waiver Program authorizes the Attorney General and Secretary of State to allow temporary visitors from certain countries to come to the United States without nonimmigrant visas. Central to the Visa Waiver Program is a provision that guarantees reciprocal arrangements on freedom of movement for American citizens seeking to visit their country.

H.R. 938, with respect to the Visa Waiver Program notes it simply as a “Report on Eligibility of Israel for Visa Waiver Program,” and stipulates that “It shall be the policy of the United States to include Israel in the list of countries that participate in the visa waiver program under section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1187) when Israel satisfies the requirements for inclusion in such program specified in such section.”

However, there was considerable lobbying and advocacy by AIPAC and a number of pro-Israel groups to revise this language in order to mirror the visa waiver language in the Senate companion bill (S. 462) authored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The visa waiver language in S. 462 not only grants authorization to include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program but would change existing law to make exceptions only for Israel to forego the requirements of the program and to lessen the reciprocity requirements for Israel to be designated as a country in the Visa Waiver Program. Given Israel’s long-held practice of detaining and denying entry to American citizens predominantly of Arab descent at the border, this exemption will implicitly sanction the discriminatory treatment of US citizens traveling to Israel and Palestine.        

Though the House bill passed in Committee will likely pass under the suspension calendar, it is nonetheless a win for civil and human rights advocates who were fighting to ensure that the visa waiver reporting section in H.R. 938 would not be amended to grant authorization to admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program or to change existing law that would exempt Israel from meeting key requirements of the program. Rep. Sherman (D-CA), who has been a strong proponent of the inclusion of Israel in the Visa Waiver Program, and who authored the stand-alone bill H.R. 300 “Visa Waiver for Israel Act of 2013,” offered very troubling remarks during the markup of the bill. Rep. Sherman not only belittled the decades of discrimination Arab Americans and American Muslims have experienced at the Israeli border, but he flat out claimed US citizens denied entry to Israel are “terrorists.” “Israel does not discriminate against Arab Americans. There has been this effort by anti-Israel extremists to accuse Israel of that… We have a no-fly list, they have a no-enter list; those associated with Islamic extremism find their name on both,” said Sherman. These statements are irresponsible and simply unacceptable by a lawmaker when our own State Department has clearly detailed profiling and discrimination experienced by US citizens at the hands of Israeli authorities.

AAI will continue to educate Members of Congress and their staff on this issue and have received considerable support in the House and Senate by Members expressing concern over legislation that prioritizes the interests of a foreign government over their own constituents. We are confident that so long as the authorization remains in Sen. Boxer’s bill to admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program without meeting the program’s requirements, the legislation has no chance of passing this Congress.  


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