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Feds roll out changes to visa program aimed at stopping terrorists

21 Jan

The Obama administration on Thursday implemented changes to an easy-entry program for foreign tourists designed to block radical extremists from entering the country.

The changes require that people who have recently traveled to or are dual citizens with Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria have a visa before entering the country.

The action closes what critics in both parties have described as a dangerous loophole that allows European nationals who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to easily enter the U.S. with little federal oversight.The easy-entry visa waiver program was designed to facilitate trade and travel. It allows citizens of 38 countries — including Australia, France and Japan — to enter the country without a visa.

A new policy rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Thursday will not prohibit people from those countries from entering the U.S. if they have recently traveled to or are dual citizens with the four nations, which are considered hotbeds of terror. Instead, those people — who otherwise would have been eligible to participate in the visa waiver program — will have to obtain a visa through the State Department.

Concerns about Europeans with ties to ISIS and other extremist groups spiked in November, following the terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

All of the attackers involved in the Paris violence are believed to have been European nationals — meaning they likely would have been able to travel to the U.S. without a visa.

Legislation changing the visa waiver program sailed through the House in December and was ultimately included in a sweeping funding bill signed into office by President Obama at the end of the year.

The visa requirements will only apply to dual citizens and people who have visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria after March 1, 2011.

Legislation passed by Congress also retains the option for the Obama administration to exempt some people from the new diplomatic hurdles.

Secretary of State John Kerry caused a stir last month when he suggested the visa waivers would be used to help encourage businesses to enter Iran, following implementation of the landmark international nuclear accord this month. Iran had previously suggested that the new measures are an unfair attack on its ability to do business with the rest of the world.

The DHS on Thursday said that those waivers would be handed out on “a case-by-case basis” to some journalists, diplomats and aid workers, among others.

People traveling to Iran for “legitimate business-related purposes” following implemantion of the nuclear deal would also receive waivers, it said.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the head of the House Judiciary Committee, on Thursday accused the administration of having decided to “abuse” the waivers “in the face of reason and congressional intent.”

“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 in a statement. “In fact, the categories of people that the Obama Administration is exempting from the law were expressly rejected by Congress.”

The administration’s policy “needlessly compromises our national security and the safety of the American people,” he warned.

This week, a British reporter with BBC’s Persian language service who is a dual national with Iran complained about having been barred from boarding a plane to the U.S. to attend a relative’s birthday party because of the new restrictions. The State Department insisted that the changes had yet to go into effect, and indicated that she was prohibited from traveling for another reason.