If Washington's intention is to improve current visa policies in order to prevent acts of terrorism in the United States, Iranian-Americans are not impressed.
As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act (H.R. 158) -- overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives in early December -- Iranian-Americans, civil libertarians, and European Union ambassadors are crying foul.
Although the bill targets travelers to the United States, and not U.S. citizens of any origin or background, it has raised concerns among Americans with Iranian ancestry, like 43-year-old Ali Partovi.
"My biggest concern is that this is a slippery slope, the beginning of discriminatory policy that could lead to more," says the prominent Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur, who was born in the Islamic republic but moved to the United States when he was 11.
H.R. 158 is seen as a response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which were carried out by European citizens who could have traveled visa-free to the United States under the waiver program. The idea is to make it more difficult for people who have been to "terrorist hotspots" -- primarily Iraq and Syria -- since March, 2011, to travel visa-free to the United States.
The bill would allow terrorism risk to be factored into decisions on entry, even for citizens of the 38 states, many of them Western European, that currently enjoy visa-free travel for short visits to the United States. It also would also require countries participating in the visa-free program to share information with U.S. authorities about suspected terrorists.
"This legislation will help close gaping security gaps and improve our ability to stop dangerous individuals before they reach our shores," Republican Representative Michael McCaul, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, was quoted as saying on December 8.
However, the U.S. State Department's classification of Iran and Sudan as state sponsors of terrorism mean that those countries are lumped together with Iraq and Syria as "terrorist hotspots." And because the bill would require entrance visas for "nationals" of such states, anyone with even the loosest of ties to Iran could come under increased scrutiny.
"The nature of the changes begin to focus not just on trying to keep out someone who has potentially done something wrong but essentially to discriminate based on national heritage," Partovi explains.
The Islamic republic of Iran does not recognize dual or foreign citizenship of former citizens, meaning that essentially anyone with ancestral ties to Iran could be considered an Iranian national.
This means that, theoretically, a German-born citizen whose parents were born in Iran could be required to receive a 90-day visa to enter the United States, whereas German citizens are legally exempt from U.S. citizens under the waiver program.
EU ambassadors to the United States have warned EU citizens who are dual nationals of one of the targeted countries would be “disproportionately and unfairly affected." And inside the United States, opponents of the bill see it as discriminatory, argue that it does not make the United States safer, and envision reciprocal action by states that are part of the visa-waiver program.
"Participating countries can respond by blocking Iranian-American travelers from traveling without a visa," the lobbying group of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) wrote in a December 15 press release. "Since Iran considers any children whose fathers are Iranian nationals to also be Iranian nationals, a wide swath of the Iranian diaspora may be targeted by this legislation."
Iranian-Americans as well as Iranians living in Europe have expressed their outrage at the thought of possible discrimination through blogs, video clips, and online petitions.
On social media, hashtags such as #NoSecondClassCitizens, #showyourdual, and #stophr158 have emerged as avenues to demand change before the Senate vote expected this week.
Amid the controversy over the bill -- which will be included in a massive spending bill that is headed toward approval, and which President Barack Obama has promised to sign -- even some lawmakers who initially supported H.R. 158 are calling for tweaks.
In a December 11 letter to the Senate leadership signed by 33 House Democrats, some members of Congress who voted for H.R. 158 said that the measures in the bill would "result in discrimination against people simply because they are dual citizens based on ancestry." The letter urged the Senate to consider "the removal of provisions that discriminate based on dual citizenship based solely on ancestry."
The 43-year-old Partovi, who moved to the United States when he was 11, worries that the legislation could set a dangerous precedent if passed as is.
"The nature of the changes begin to focus not just on trying to keep out someone who has potentially done something wrong but essentially to discriminate based on national heritage," he says. "That is crossing a line that both, I feel, is a violation of the principles that make America great, but also once you cross that line you could go further in that direction and have things get even worse."
Based on reporting by Golnaz Esfandiari
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