Traveling by plane these days is never easy. Not only must travelers within the United States have their airline tickets, but they also need proper identification; plus, there is waiting in long lines, being at the mercy of airport officials, weather-related delays, and changing regulations about what can be carried on and what must be checked. It can be a frustrating experience.
All of this pales in comparison to attempting international travel. If you have ever done it, you might be aware of how much paperwork one has to go through before being allowed into a country. Visas, entry permits, fees, documents, biometric data, stamps, etc. rule the land of international travel. American passport holders can consider themselves lucky to be able to travel to 160 or so countries without applying for a visa ahead of time; but some countries, like Brazil, Australia, China, or India will require it.
Meanwhile, the United States is no longer as forthcoming in granting access to visitors. About 40 countries are participating in the so-called “Visa Waiver Program” or VWP, which is in part based on reciprocity – “if you let our citizens visit your country and support the tourist industry, we will let your citizens visit our country and do the same.” Under the VWP travelers who hold a passport from a participating country, are able to apply for visa free travel for short-term stays, using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA electronically collect data that the applicant puts into the program.
Unfortunately, all of this has become even more complicated. The new year brought some changes to this program. Starting January 21, 2016, travelers who have been to Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria at any time since 2011 may no longer participate in the VWP. They now need a visitor’s visa to enter the United States instead. This rule, which was supposedly designed to prevent potential terrorists from entering the US, also applies to people who hold dual citizenship for those countries. Whether you find this change useful in keeping America safe or just another example of anti-Muslim prejudice, it is now affecting a number of innocent people who used to be able to travel relatively hassle-free, based on either their dual citizenship or on prior travel. This includes people like my friend Adah.
Adah, who was born in Austria, is an Austrian citizen. She has lived there her whole life. Her mother is Austrian, but because her father, who came to Austria as a political refugee over 30 years ago, is originally from Iran, she also holds Iranian citizenship and has visited in the past to connect with her father’s family. Until recently, she was able to visit the U.S. under the VWP by applying for an ESTA. But in January 2016, her ESTA was revoked, and she now needs to apply for a Visitor’s Visa, if she ever wants to visit the U.S. again. She explained “I don’t think I will go there [to the U.S.] again. I would much rather visit a country where I am not treated like a second-rate tourist, where I am actually as welcome as anybody else from my country.”
Adah says this choice was “easy” for her to make, but only because her cousin, whom she used to visit, no longer lives in the U.S. She says people who have close family members living in the U.S. will probably go through the visa process, which is more complicated and takes longer than the ESTA procedure.
I do not fully understand why the US government made this change to the Visa Waiver Program. It seems to have been a calculated move to “sort out” anybody with a “questionable” background in the wake of terrorist attacks, and the surge of refugees into Europe– some of whom might have become radicalized. But why assume that because someone visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan in the last few years, therefore they must be a suspected terrorist?
Is this new rule designed to make people living in the U.S. feel safer, by giving the impression that measures are taken to keep terrorism at bay? Did officials feel like they had to do something? People who traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan or hold citizenship are now facing increased scrutiny and security checks, but what exactly will be accomplished by that? What about youth who became radicalized without ever leaving their country of birth? If terrorists run out of people they can “route” into a country, all they have to do is recruit people from within – and the U.S. is already home to religious conservatives and extremists from more than one religion.
And what about all the other countries someone might have visited? Whom are they going to scrutinize next? Are visas for everybody in the near future? In order to truly fight terrorism inside and outside of a country, it is not enough to exclude one group of people based on a shared religion, culture, or a country they may have visited. My friend Adah is one of many to now feel unwelcome in America; a ruling that impacts so many people who did nothing wrong is a ruling that needs to be reconsidered.