Lawmakers pushing to add Israel to visa-waiver program

Israel may be one of the closest and most important U.S. allies, but it isn’t part of a special group of countries that get preferred treatment for visas to enter the United States.

Its request is tangled in civil liberties and U.S. immigration concerns, along with domestic U.S. politics. Now, however, pro-Israel members of Congress are tussling with the Obama administration over what many see as a double standard, and may be gaining ground.

“Some things are hard just because it’s Israel,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).

Israel hasn’t met the criteria to join the U.S. visa-waiver program — particularly a requirement to treat all American visa applicants equally — and won’t be admitted until it does, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week. The courtesy extended to more than 35 nations allows short-term travel to the United States without a visa, freeing applicants from the delays, hassles and expense of securing that travel document.

“Any country is required to meet those requirements in order to be considered,” and Israel will not get preferential treatment, Psaki said Tuesday.

Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Arab descent complain that Israel subjects them to additional, often intrusive, scrutiny when they seek to visit family members or make other visits to Israel or the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“For decades, Israel has racially profiled U.S. citizens of Palestinian, Arab or Muslim descent attempting to enter the country,” said George Bisharat, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law.

“As long as Israel discriminates against U.S. citizens on grounds of ethnicity or religion, it remains an inappropriate candidate for our visa-waiver program,” Bisharat said.

It is primarily that unequal treatment that makes Israel ineligible for the program, according to the State Department. But the State Department and Department of Homeland Security also cite a pattern of young Israelis overstaying their visas or working illegally while in the United States, and a resulting rise in the numbers of Israelis refused a visa.

High numbers of rejected visas are usually a bar to inclusion in the visa-waiver program, although pro-Israel members of Congress have noted that a few other nations have skirted that requirement.

“Even if there is a concern that a small segment of a group will violate their visas, this is no reason to have a policy of presumptively denying visas for an entire group of foreign nationals from one of our most important allies and global partners in the world,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote to Secretary of State John F. Kerry this month.

Supporters of Israel have questioned whether Israel is being asked to meet an unrealistically high bar.

“Those who dislike Israel are trying to argue that Israel is discriminatory. That is hardly the case. We have our no-fly list, and they have their no-fly list,” Sherman said.

“The groups that hate Israel will call Israel racist automatically,” he said. “That’s the default position, and if they say it often enough, I guess some folks at the State Department will listen.”

The Obama administration recently told Congress in a letter that it wants to help Israel meet the requirements. But Sherman and others said administration opposition qualms are the main obstacle to passage of legislation that would exempt Israel from the visa-rejection issue.

The wrangling is separate from the now-shelved effort during the past year to broker peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Attempts in Congress to legislate Israel’s inclusion have failed over the past two years, partly because of concern in the administration and the Republican-led House that it muddied the separate policy debate over immigration reform.

But sponsors, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), were stung by criticism that overriding the usual admission procedures for Israel amounted to endorsement of discrimination against Arab Americans.

Another attempt is expected in the Senate soon, aided by recent assurances from the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it is looking at ways to change procedures for Arab Americans entering Israel.

“Israel is interested in entering into the visa-waiver program and is taking concrete steps to meet its conditions,” an Israeli diplomat said. “Israel has been engaging with the American administration in order to determine how we can advance Israeli access,” said the official, who requested anonymity to describe a series of meetings over the past few months at the State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

Answering Schumer’s complaint, Assistant Secretary of State Julia Frifield said that Kerry had directed a review of consular procedures involving young Israelis and would form a “U.S.-
Israeli working group to help Israel move toward eligibility.”

“That is a goal of both the United States and Israel,” she wrote.

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.
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