House passed Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to restrict the Visa Waiver Program and could bar those with dual nationality or were born in Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Sudan. I have been working in the field of US immigration law since 1996 so I have lived through the events of 9/11, economic booms and busts but I have never seen such a sinister sheen to US politicians debate on US immigration law. Throughout the years, US immigration lawyers have called for changes to US immigration law to allow the best and brightest to be allowed to enter the US and contribute to the US economy and society as a whole. Bills are proposed in Congress but they are never passed.

Despite the difficulty for Congress to agree on anything, they have, with lightening speed, passed bills recently in light of the Paris terrorist attacks and the most recent San Bernardino shooting. It is interesting as an American watching all this develop in my home country while living in Britain. Last weekend, there was a man who attacked others in a London underground station who could have been a terrorist but more likely than not is mentally ill and what we get out of it is not fearmongering from our politicians but instead we get a hashtag that reflects the spirit of British multiculturalism: “you’renomuslimbruv”. In America we have politicians, namely Donald Trump (if he is actually can be considerd a politician) who are purposely creating fear and further divisions within American society and from the world. What is more frightening is that there are people in America who ignorantly believe what Trump is saying. Britain is a much smaller country than the United States yet the British people get on with their lives and do not live in fear.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a bill entitled the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 by a resounding 407 to 19 votes. The Visa Waiver Program allows nationals of 38 countries to travel to the US without a visa for the purpose of business or tourism for periods of up to 90 days a time. This program was created to allow more freedom of travel which brings further economic trade and money from tourism to the US ever year. Those who wish to travel on the Visa Waiver Program must first complete the Electronic System for Travel Authorization “ESTA” form online and pay a $14 fee. Before 2009 the US government required that the equivalent of a hard copy the ESTA form which was usually completed on the plane. The ESTA form gathers information about each visitor before they even get to the airport and the purpose of that is to ensure that US Customs & Border Protection can anticipate and prevent those who should not be allowed in to the US.

The new bill passed by the House yesterday will, if it becomes law, amend the Immigration & Nationality Act to include terrorism risk as a factor the Department of Homeland Security shall consider under ESTA in determining a person’s eligibility to travel to the United States. The new plan is to bar those who are from Iraq, Syria, Iran and the Sudan or those who have visited those countries in the last five years according to a Bloomberg article. In addition, the Senate plan is to require Visa Waiver Program travellers to provide biometric data before travelling and will increase the ESTA fee.

At this time there is a web of security checks that occur for all those who enter or apply for US visas. A person’s place of birth is also a major factor and I advise my clients who are born in certain countries to be aware that they are at risk of having their applications put on hold for further security checks. Those with Muslim sounding names are already being held a secondary inspection at US ports of entry for further screening. I wonder, has Congress actually conferred with the US Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to see what checks are already in place before taking the time to pass this bill?

Before passing this legislation, I hope Congress considers the affect of passing such a bill on the US economy as it will prevent people and businesses from coming to the United States. I also worry about the affect it will have on the US society in general because it will only create an atmosphere of fear and hatred to foreign nationals that will only play right in the hands of organizations like ISIS.

Finally, Congress is focussing on the wrong thing. Mass shootings are becoming a weekly event in the United States yet they decide to direct their energies on Homeland Security issues. I’m not saying that immigration and security issues should be ignored but American must look inward to itself and see that the legalization of guns and lack of mental healthcare is the cause of the mass shootings which, in the majority have been committed by white, US citizen men.