In December 2015, Congress passed a new Visa Waiver Program, which included substantial restrictions for travel between the U.S. and Iran for Iranian-Americans who have dual nationality. Under the previous Visa Waiver Program, individuals from certain countries were able to travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa in advance. Those countries reciprocated this policy, thereby allowing Americans the ability to travel to those countries sans visa.
Under the new program, if an individual is considered a ‘national’ of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria, or has travelled to any of those countries in the past five years, the individual must now obtain a visa prior to their travels. This poses considerable problems because the new law does not specify how the U.S. will define dual nationality. For example, an Iranian who was born in Germany may be denied entry to the U.S. based on where their parent was born. This person may not have ever even travelled to Iran, but they are now potentially barred from the visa-free travel that similar non-Iranian individuals are entitled to.
Jamal Abdi, the Executive Director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), argued that the legislation is inherently discriminatory, punishing individuals “solely based on their nationality or ethnic origin.”
HR 158 was initially intended to provide enhanced security measures by restricting travels of suspected terrorists in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings. The rhetoric that followed the mass shooting was aimed at instilling fear in order to promote the idea that tighter restrictions need to be implemented to protect Americans from future tragedies. It is important to note, the individuals responsible for the San Bernardino shootings, suspected members of ISIS, did not hold dual citizenship; they were citizens of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Neither of those countries is effected by the new visa waiver program. Trita Parsi of NIAC rightly points out, “if the intent truly is to protect America from ISIS and not target Iran and the nuclear deal, then why is Iran included but travel to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not?”
The practical effect of the legislation punishes individuals who travel legitimately; artists, journalists, academics, teachers, and businesspersons. It certainly won’t stop terrorists from travelling through illegitimate means across Europe, so is it really a form of protection or a legal form of punishment?
Atusa Mozaffari is a 3L and a Student Work Editor of the Journal of Law and International Affairs at the Penn State University Dickinson School of Law.
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 Dual nationality is not the same as dual citizenship. In Iran, an individual who was born in Iran, who then moved to America and gained citizenship there, is only recognized as an Iranian citizen. As such, they are required to have an Iranian passport, as opposed to a visa, and are subject to the laws of Iran as any other natural born citizen. This extends to the children of Iranian-Americans born in the US, as well as to non-Iranian married spouses.