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John C.
Democrat MI 13

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  • Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015

    by Representative John Conyers Jr.

    Posted on 2015-12-08

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    CONYERS. Mr. Speaker, Members of the House, as much as any Member in this body, I appreciate the unique situation our Nation is in as we struggle to effectively combat terrorism, while adhering to our Nation's commitment to freedom and liberty.



    I fully recognize and appreciate that the bill before us today represents an effort to craft a more bipartisan response to recent terrorist incidents, particularly when compared to the seriously flawed refugee bill that this body voted on only several weeks ago.

    I commend the office for including many commonsense improvements to the Visa Waiver Program that will improve the system in a neutral and nondiscriminatory manner. However, I believe that provisions in the legislation restricting the use of the Visa Waiver Program to individuals who have traveled to Syria or Iraq or are dual nationals of these or other covered nations are discriminatory. I understand that these individuals are not banned from traveling to our Nation and are simply subject to increased questioning and scrutiny before they can travel here.

    However, history has shown us that arbitrary across-the-board judgments based on broad characteristics such as these do nothing to enhance our security and only cast a cloud of suspicion over entire communities here in our country.

    Equally problematic is the provision's overbreadth. It contains no exceptions for journalists, researchers, human rights investigators, or other professionals. This will make it harder, not easier, to document and respond to human rights violations and other abuses. I also believe the provision should have included a sunset date so that we can assess its efficacy. I am further concerned that the new requirement will result in our partner nations placing new limits on travel by United States citizens to their own countries.

    It is because of these problems that numerous civil rights and civil liberties groups have expressed serious concerns or outright opposition to the overall legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Arab-American Civil Rights League, Human Rights Watch, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, among others.

    Mr. Speaker, I include in the Record letters from those groups.

    December 8, 2015.

    Re: Visa Waiver Improvement and Terrorism Travel Prevention Act of 2015, H.R. 158 U.S. Senate, House of Representatives.

    Dear Legislator: The Arab-American Civil Rights League (``ACRL'') writes with grave concern regarding H.R. 158, the Visa Waiver Improvement and Terrorism Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (``HR 158''). HR 158 would amend the Visa Waiver Program by mandating that individuals who have traveled to Syria or Iraq in the past five years be barred from participation in the Visa Waiver Program. The ACRL strongly opposes such legislation on the grounds that it is both discriminatory and ineffective--an ill-conceived legislative backlash to recent tragedies.

    HR 158's blanket ban upon persons who have visited the countries of Iraq and Syria in the past five years will only harm those who have legitimate reasons to visit the United States, and will not effectively deter or prevent terrorists and criminals from seeking to enter this country and do us harm. Simply put, nefarious individuals seeking to enter the United States to commit illegal acts of terror, will not be dissuaded by federal law. It is nothing less than absurd to think that an individual trying to enter the United States to commit acts of terror will abide by our laws.

    On the other hand, HR 158 will ban individuals who have visited Syria and Iraq for legitimate reasons in the last five years, for no other reason than their physical presence in said countries. Consider the types of individuals that would be banned: journalists, members of the clergy, family visitors, and myriad others. HR 158 targets and punishes entire swathes of people who have done nothing wrong, while failing to effectively target those who seek to harm this country. In all essence, HR 158 presumes that there are no reasons for people to visit Syria and Iraq, and that anyone who has been to those two countries should be suspected of terrorism.

    Far from enhancing our safety and security, HR 158 will only further isolate and alienate people of Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent. In this sense, HR 158 is a victory for the terrorists, whose true goal is to disrupt our society through acts of shocking violence and barbarism. Far from playing into their hands, we should reaffirm our national commitment to liberty, and continue to embrace pluralism. At our core, we remain a nation of many cultures, [[Page H9052]] ethnicities, and faiths, and are far stronger when we defend our core values and refuse to act in fear. Federal policy must be carefully drafted and deliberated given its wide- ranging scope and effect. As we have seen in the past with other pieces of national security legislation, such legislative acts can lead to slippery slopes. We at the ACRL urge you to oppose HR 158, and specifically its mandatory exclusion provisions, because they are ineffective, ill- conceived, and un-American.

    Respectfully submitted, Arab-American Civil Rights League (ACRL).

    ____ AILA: Congress Should Reject H.R. 158 Until Its Visa Waiver Program Changes Are More Carefully Weighed Washington, DC.--The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) expressed concerns regarding the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Prevention Act, H.R. 158, and recommended Congress vote ``NO'' on the bill unless modifications and clarifications are made.

    ``Protecting our nation from terrorists is absolutely essential, and AILA understands and supports efforts to strengthen the Visa Waiver Program, but Congress must consider any legislative proposal carefully, and this bill is getting rushed to the House floor without ever being reviewed in Committee. In fact, the bill was not even made public until just a day or two ago,'' said AILA President Victor Nieblas Pradis.

    ``AILA has serious concerns that H.R. 158 would broadly target descendants of Syrian or Iraqi nationals, or those from other countries alleged to be supporting terrorism, who may have little or no connection to those countries except by parentage,'' Mr. Nieblas continued, referring to the bill's blanket termination of participation in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for anyone who is a ``national'' of Iraq or Syria, or other designated countries. ``As written, the bill could result in discrimination that will exclude people without consideration of legitimate risk factors. For instance, a child who has never been to Syria, but was born in France to Syrian parents, would be ineligible for the VWP.'' H.R. 158 also excludes from the program anyone who travelled to countries alleged to be supporting terrorism within the past five years, without sufficient authority to waive revocation for those who clearly pose no threat. ``This per se ban will hurt humanitarian workers and journalists who are traveling to Iraq and Syria or other designated countries to do life-saving work or to report on international events. The bill's waiver will not help any of these people who have visited for legitimate, even compelling reasons,'' Mr. Nieblas noted, referring to a provision that allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive the exclusion if the waiver is in the interest of law enforcement or national security, but makes no mention of humanitarian or other grounds.

    ``History has shown overbroad programs that target people based on nationality, race, ethnic origin or religion are not effective at combatting terrorism. After 9/11, our government forced thousands of people from Middle-Eastern countries, and countries with predominantly Arab and Muslim populations, to undergo special processes to register themselves with the federal immigration authorities,'' Mr. Nieblas said, referring to the 2002 special-registration program under National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). The U.S. government described special-registration as an ``inconvenience'' in the same way some are now justifying H.R. 158's exclusion from VWP. He continued, ``Not a single known terrorism-related conviction ever came out of NSEERS. NSEERS is a stain on our nation's history that we should never repeat.'' H.R. 158 would also establish additional reporting requirements to Congress regarding use of the program, additional eligibility requirements for VWP countries, and enhancements to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The agencies involved in the VWP have sought to continually improve and adapt the program as circumstances change. As Congress aims to enhance the program, it is essential that any changes are both workable and effective.

    ``Standing by our founding principles of freedom and liberty is what keeps us strong. AILA urges Congress to show leadership by ensuring any legislation it passes is consistent with our values as a nation, and is crafted in a way that is workable, sensible, and based on good policy, not political expediency,'' Mr. Nieblas concluded.

    ____ The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Washington, DC, December 8, 2015.

    Oppose H.R. 158, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 Dear Representative: On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil and human rights advocacy organizations, we urge you to oppose H.R. 158, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015. Section 3 of H.R. 158 would open the door to the use of profiling on the basis of national origin, while doing little, if anything, to promote national security.

    While H.R. 158 calls for a number of bipartisan improvements to the visa waiver program (VWP), Section 3 would make two significant and unhelpful changes. First, it would bar travelers from utilizing the process if they are dual nationals of a VWP country and also of Iraq, Syria, or other countries that are named as state sponsors of terrorism. Its overly-broad language would apply to nationals of those countries even if they have never set foot there, and are only dual citizens because of the nationality of their parents.

    Second, it would exclude visitors from the VWP if they have traveled to Iraq, Syria, or other designated countries, even if they did so to provide medical or humanitarian assistance or many other legitimate purposes. The effect of this on national security is negligible at best, because it would only affect people who entered those countries through legitimate channels and accurately reported their travels-- not those who snuck in through the poorly-secured borders in those countries to work with terrorist groups. In other words, it would simply penalize travelers for being honest.

    While Iraqi or Syrian dual nationals, or people who have visited those countries, could still apply at a U.S. consulate for a nonimmigrant visa, they would be subjected to a process that raises concerns about ethnic and national origin profiling and other arbitrary practices. Under current procedures, consular decisions are not reviewable, which raises the likelihood that low-risk individuals would be barred from traveling to the United States altogether, while high-risk individuals would simply find other ways of doing harm.

    We would support amendments to Section 3 that add due process protections for affected travelers. Because the bill is coming up on the suspension calendar, however, no such amendments will be allowed. We recognize that Congress is highly motivated to enact greater national security protections in the wake of the Paris and San Bernadino terrorist attacks, but we hope that you will reject this bill in its current form and demand that it be improved.

    Thank you for your consideration. If you have any questions, please contact either of us or Rob Randhava, Senior Counsel.

    Sincerely, Wade Henderson, President & CEO.

    Nancy Zirkin, Executive Vice President.

    ____ December 7, 2015.

    Re ACLU Concerns With the ``Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015'' (H.R. 158) Dear Representative: On behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), we urge you to amend the ``Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015'' (H.R. 158).

    I. H.R. 158 arbitrarily discriminates against nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan who are citizens of visa waiver program (``VWP'') countries--based on their nationality and parentage.

    The VWP is a long-established program that permits nationals of certain countries to enter the U.S. as visitors (tourists or business) without a visa, for up to 90 days. H.R. 158 terminates travel privileges for all citizens of VWP countries who are dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan. This revocation of VWP privileges would apply to all nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan even if they have never resided in or traveled to Iraq or Syria. By singling out these four nationalities to the exclusion of other dual nationals in VWP countries, H.R. 158 amounts to blanket discrimination based on nationality and national origin without a rational basis.

    There is no sufficient reason to justify the differential treatment of VWP citizens who are nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan. There is no evidence to support assertion that citizens of VWP countries, who are dual nationals of these four are more likely to engage in terrorist acts against the U.S.

    Not only is H.R. 158 discriminatory, it is arbitrary. Unlike the U.S. which grants citizenship to all children born on U.S. soil, birth within Syria does not automatically confer citizenship. Rather Syrian citizenship is conferred by naturalization or descent. With respect to descent, Syrian citizenship is conferred to children ``born of a Syrian father, regardless of the child's country of birth'' or children ``born of a Syrian mother and an unknown or stateless father.'' The proposal would yield the untenable result of folding such gender-based distinctions into U.S. law.

    Therefore, if H.R. 158 were to become law, the following types of travelers would automatically lose their VWP privileges, even if they have never been to Iraq or Syria: Dual-national French citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to U.S. for business conferences and meetings; Dual-national German citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to U.S. with vacation tour group; Dual-national Austrian citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to the U.S. to take care of grandchild.

    It is wrong and un-American to punish groups without reason solely based on their nationality, national origin, religion, gender, or other protected grounds.

    II. H.R. 158 would end VWP privileges for all recent travelers to Iraq or Syria, including those who traveled there for professional purposes H.R. 158 would terminate VWP travel privileges for all who have been present in Iraq or Syria at any time on or after March 1, 2011. This broad travel restriction contains a very [[Page H9053]] narrow exception for certain military personnel and government officials. All other travelers would automatically lose their VWP privileges. Affected travelers would include journalists, scholars, refugee caseworkers, humanitarian aid workers, human rights investigators, and many others.

    Under H.R. 158, the following types of travelers would automatically lose their VWP privileges based on their travel to Syria or Iraq since March 2011: British citizen, working as a reporter for the London-based Daily Telegraph who traveled to Syria to cover the civil war; Swiss citizen, working as a social worker in a Kurdish refugee camp in northern Iraq; Belgian citizen, working as a human rights investigator to document abuses committed by ISIL against Syrians.

    Many of these VWP travelers have gone to Syria or Iraq for professional purposes and are producing reports and providing services that the U.S., indeed the whole world, depends upon, now more than ever. They should not lose their VWP travel privileges for their work in Syria or Iraq.

    III. Congress must place a time limit on measures to revoke VWP travel privileges When Congress created the VWP years ago, Congress authorized the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to designate certain countries as VWP countries. Congress has never codified any nationality-based prohibitions for VWP program designation. If the House passes this bill, it will be enshrining into statute that VWP citizens, who happen to be Iraqi or Syrian nationals, are categorically ineligible for VWP travel privileges even if they have never been to Iraq or Syria.

    In view of this extraordinary discriminatory measure, Congress should limit the duration of this VWP restriction and place a two-year sunset on this travel restriction. A sunset provision would require Congress to reassess in two years whether nationals of Iraq and Syria warrant such selective targeting for VWP travel restriction purposes.

    IV. Conclusion While the ACLU recognizes the importance of a Congressional response to the increase in recent terrorist attacks, we urge Congress to exercise caution and to avoid passing legislation that would broadly scapegoat groups based on nationality, and would fan the flames of discriminatory exclusion, both here and abroad. We, therefore, urge the House to amend H.R. 158 by: (1) Deleting the langpge that categorically strips VWP privileges from all Iraqi and Syrian nationals; (2) Expanding the exemption to include journalists, researchers, human rights investigators, and other professionals; and (3) Inserting a two-year sunset date to the travel restrictions on the use of VWP.

    In the absence of such changes, we have grave reservations about this proposal.

    For more information, please contact ACLU Legislative Counsel Joanne Lin or Policy Counsel Chris Rickerd.

    Sincerely, Karin Johanson, Director; Washington Legislative Office.

    Joanne Lin, Legislative Counsel.

    Chris Rickerd, Policy Counsel.

    ____ House of Representatives, December 7, 2015.

    Re Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, H.R. 158.

    Dear Representative: On behalf of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC), I write to strongly urge you to Vote No on the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, H.R. 158. We have serious concerns on the application and enforcement of this bill if it were to become law, specifically Section 3 which 1) imposes a mandatory and categorically bar to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) on any individual who is a dual citizen of Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Iran; and 2) prohibits any person whom has traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Sudan since March 1, 2011.

    We understand that the U.S. House of Representatives may push forward H.R. 158 through the omnibus appropriations bill, and strongly request you to Vote No to H.R. 158 and/or its inclusion in an omnibus bill because H.R. 158 is: 1) ineffective to actually secure safety; and 2) intentionally discriminates and profiles persons based on their national origin.

    Section 3's blanket exclusion of visitors to Iraq and Syria would not be an effective security measure as it relies on self-reporting accurate tracking of who visits those countries that could be circumvented by someone intending to do harm--the persons who are intent on engaging in terror activities are not getting their passports stamped, they are sneaking into Syria and Iraq. The provision is more likely to screen out health and aid workers, clergymen, journalists, teachers, military personnel, translators, family visitors and others who are helping protect Americans or have legitimate or completely innocent reasons to visit Syria or Iraq--essentially penalizing them for their honesty and performing humanitarian work.

    It is not black and white, nor simple to suggest that H.R. 158 just requires individuals to get a visa. H.R. 158 is not just a visa requirement, H.R. 158 is discriminatory. Section 3 imposes a mandatory bar to all persons whom are dual citizens of Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Iran is blatant profiling on its face. Only nationals of particular countries regardless of whether they have traveled to a terrorist support country or not, have to meet additional requirements they would not otherwise have to go through if they were not Arab. It is premised on the unreliable assumption that Arabs are more prone to terrorism and to commit terrorist acts, and further perpetuates stereotypes that Arabs are terrorists. There is no separate assessment and/or security review is done that determines that specific person on a case by case basis is a security threat, non-related to their identity, place of birth, or country of national origin.

    The fact is that terrorism is not limited to one particular race, country of national origin, or religion, nor bound by country borders. However, this bill paints Arabs as the enemy, and makes VWP Arab nationals second class citizens in their own country--they are not afforded the same benefits as their fellow nationals. Many VWP nationals will be arbitrarily denied entry by Customs and Border Patrol with little to no notice of change in VWP requirements and no review if that person actually presents a threat to national security. Currently, Arabs face enormous scrutiny and security checks to enter the U.S. and many have been denied entry even with valid non-immigrant and immigrant visas, based on no other reason but their national origin. You should not support the further arbitrary exclusion of a group of people based on nothing but that person's national origin.

    Historically programs with sweeping powers to exclude people based on nationality, race, ethnic origin or religion have proven to be ineffective. In 2002, the U.S. government established the special-registration program under National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) requiring heightened registration and scrutiny of people in the U.S. who came from mostly Arab and Muslim countries. NSEERS was initially portrayed as an anti-terrorism measure which required male visitors to the U.S. from 25 Arab and Muslim countries to be fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned by immigration officers. Many whom complied with registration were arbitrarily detained and deported. NSEERS proved to be an ineffective counter-terrorism tool, and has not resulted in a single known terrorism-related conviction. We also should not forget the detrimental ramifications of blanket immigration exclusion and discrimination against Asians with the Chinese Exclusion Act.

    Rather than imposing an ineffective ban from VWP on people who set foot in Syria and Iraq and excluding groups of people based on their national origin, Congress should consider other security measures that would more effectively enhance the Department of Homeland Security's screening process overall. We must also be weary of how VWP countries will treat Americans of Arab and Middle Eastern background, and may single out and exclude our citizens from entry in their respective immigration processes.

    ADC strongly urges you to Vote No to H.R. 158 and stand up against profiling. The automatic exclusion of dual citizens of VWP countries and the designated Arab countries, and recent visitors to Iraq and Syria is discriminatory. The reactionary government actions following the Pearl Harbor attack--Japanese Internment camps and 9/11--arbitrary detention and surveillance of Arabs--are cautionary tales that we must heed to now and remember that we cannot let fear erode respect and protection of civil and human rights.

    Respectfully Submitted, Samer Khalaf, Esq.; ADC National President.

    ____ House of Representatives, December 4, 2015.

    Re Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act, S. 2337.

    Dear Representative: The undersigned organizations write to express our concern regarding the Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act, S. 2337, specifically Section 2 of the bill which imposes a mandatory and categorical bar to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) on any individual who has traveled to Syria or Iraq within the previous five years. We understand that the House of Representatives may look to S. 2337 as it related to pushing forward on H.R. 158, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act. In any discussions regarding reforms to the VWP, including the omnibus appropriations bill, we urge you to remove provisions that specifically target people who visit or are from Syria or Iraq.

    The bill's blanket exclusion of visitors to Iraq and Syria would not be an effective security measure as it relies on self-reporting accurate tracking of who visits those countries that could be circumvented by someone intending to do harm--the persons who are intent on engaging in tenor activities are not getting their passports stamped, they are sneaking into Syria and Iraq. The provision is more likely to screen out health and aid workers, clergymen, journalists, military personnel, translators, family visitors and others who are helping protect Americans or have legitimate or completely innocent reasons to visit Syria or Iraq essentially penalizing them for their honesty.

    The provision is premised on the unreliable assumption that people from those countries are more likely to commit terrorist acts, and [[Page H9054]] it makes anyone who visits those countries automatically suspect of terrorism. While the draft legislation on its face applies to all persons who have traveled to Syria or Iraq, in reality the legislation will have a disparate impact on people of Syrian and Iraqi descent. Historically programs with sweeping powers to exclude people based on nationality, race, ethnic origin or religion have proven to be ineffective. In 2002, the U.S government established the special-registration program under National Security Entry- Exit Registration System (NSEERS) requiring heightened registration and scrutiny of people in the U.S. who came from mostly Arab and Muslim countries. NSEERS proved to be an ineffective counter-terrorism tool, and has not resulted in a single known terrorism-related conviction. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) suspended NSEERS in 2011.

    Rather than imposing an ineffective ban from VWP on people who set foot in Syria and Iraq, Congress should consider other security measures that would more effectively enhance the Department of Homeland Security's ability to identify and screen out terrorists and dangerous individuals who pose threats to our nation.

    The automatic exclusion of recent visitors to Iraq and Syria is discriminatory and will alienate Americans of Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. The better way to combat terrorism in the U.S. is to ensure strong relations with these communities. With respect to Syrian refugees, former Sec. of State Madeleine Albright said ``Our enemies have a plan. They want to divide the world between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between the defenders and attackers of Islam. In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, America must show its leadership by ensuring we remain an open society that welcomes people of all nationalities, faiths and backgrounds.

    Respectfully Submitted, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), Asian Law Caucus, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Human Rights Watch, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Just Foreign Policy, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP, National Immigration Law Center, National Network for Arab American Communities, Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities (STAND), SustainUS.

    Mr. CONYERS. Mr. Speaker, while there are many positive aspects to the legislation, I believe, in the end, we cannot countenance anything in our laws that judges individuals based on their nationality rather than their character.

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