Urgent Action Needed on Visa Waiver Bill Affecting Our Community

Dear IABA Members and Friends:

As many of you know, the Visa Waiver Program (also called “ESTA”) has long permitted the nationals and citizens of the United States and 38 other program countries, including most of Europe, to travel between their countries without the need to obtain a visa for short visits. With the passage of H.R. 158, now entitled the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (“the Act”), the Visa Waiver Program no longer applies to dual nationals of several countries (including Iran) as well as anyone who has visited Iran since March 2011 (regardless of whether they are Iranian dual nationals). On January 21, 2016, the U.S. Department of State implemented the Act, meaning Iranian dual nationals who are citizens of one of these 38 countries, and anyone visiting Iran since March 2011, must obtain a visa before traveling to the U.S.

The Act is already creating obstacles for travelers. A number of people of Iranian descent, or those who have traveled to Iran in the last five years, have already been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. without a visa, including journalists. Just a couple of examples can be found here: https://theintercept.com/2016/01/29/discriminatory-new-visa-law-keeps-german-iranian-professor-out-of-u-s/; http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-35363763. The new law is also expected to impact countless Iranian-Americans and Iranians livings abroad. In fact, the DHS has already purged some 16,000 records from its ESTA database.

Additionally, it remains to be seen how the European Union will react to implementation of H.R. 158. Because the Act is based on reciprocity, representatives of the European Union have threatened to enact reciprocal restrictions, meaning U.S. citizens with dual Iranian nationality (or those traveling to Iran since March 2011) may need visas to travel to Europe.

The discriminatory provisions in the Act have been the subject of criticism by many Iranian-American organizations (including the IABA), which have strongly condemned this discriminatory law. Notably, H.R. 158 has also been subject to criticism by various members of Congress. In fact, 33 members of the House Judiciary Committee recently wrote a letter expressing disapproval of H.R. 158, stating: (1) “as written, H.R. 158 would discriminate against people simply because they are dual citizens based on ancestry,” and (2) that “people seeking entry into our country should be evaluated based on the specific security risk that they themselves pose – not where their parents are from.”

Fortunately, there is some good news.

There is currently a bi-partisan bill in the House and Senate to repeal some of the discriminatory provisions of H.R. 158, entitled the Equal Protection in Travel Act of 2016 (H.R.4380/S.2449). This bill aims to undo the discriminatory provisions of H.R. 158 based on nationality (but not those who have travelled to Iran) and would substantially limit any reciprocal restrictions from countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program that could impact our community. While this bill does not remove all of the discriminatory effects of H.R. 158, it is a positive step in the right direction.

Separately, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) circulated a sign-on letter in the House calling on the Obama Administration to waive restrictions on dual nationals and people who have traveled to Iran.

We, as members of IABA and the Iranian American community, must do what we can to encourage our local representatives to vote for the bill, and to support the letter.

What You Can Do:
There are several easy things that you can do to help express support for these bills and ensure that they pass through Congress.   Such action will only take a few minutes:
  1.  Contact your House Representative and Senators. The most effective way to be heard is to contact your congressional representatives, and either talk to their staff or leave a message.  Urge your representative to do both of the following:
     a.     Vote YES for the “Equal Protection in Travel Act.” Be sure to identify yourself and your city.  To find the contact information for your House Representative and Senators, click here.
    b.     Support Rep. Huffman’s letter calling on the Obama Administration to waive the restrictions, and encourage that President Obama waive the problematic visa restrictions in their entirety.
  2.  Spread the word. Email this summary to, and share it with, your friends and urge them to get involved right away.  Our time to act is limited.

What IABA Is Doing:

In addition to educating and calling the Iranian-American community to action, IABA will remain closely involved with this legislation. Among other things, IABA is:
  1. Contacting Senators and House Representatives in an effort to repeal, or at the very least, modify the legislation;
  2. Working with other community and advocacy groups to coordinate efforts to seek reversal of this legislation;
  3. Researching whether the Act is subject to legal and/or constitutional challenges; and
  4. Monitoring the situation to providing updates as appropriate.
We strongly urge all of you, who are members of the bar and guardians of our community’s legal rights, to take a few minutes out of your busy days to act on this information.  Most, if not all, members of the Iranian American Bar Association are negatively impacted by this Bill. Our voices and actions are necessary if we want to prevent Iranian-Americans from becoming second-class citizens.

 

Babak Yousefzadeh, President
IABA National Board of Directors


 

With eight chapters in various metropolitan cities across the country, the Iranian American Bar Association (“IABA”) is one of the most prominent minority bar associations in the United States. IABA chapters hold networking events, publish articles on key legal developments, and provide outreach to lawyers and law students. IABA also provides an annual scholarship to law students looking for assistance and provides lawyer mentors for those seeking guidance. IABA also helps serve the Iranian-American community and the community at-large by providing legal advocacy on important issues.
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