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Obama administration rolls out new visa waiver program rules in wake of terror attacks

Secretary of State John Kerry has tried to assuage concerns about the visa waiver program from countries whose nationals will no longer be allowed to participate without individual waivers for travelers. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)

The Obama administration announced on Thursday that it has begun to implement restrictions to the visa waiver program Congress passed as part of the budget deal last month.

The restrictions prevent nationals of 38 countries who have either traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan since March 1, 2011, or those who hold citizenship from those countries, from coming to the United States under the program. The visa waiver program offers expedited electronic processing and short-term visa-free travel to tourists and business travelers.

Instead, dual nationals and travelers who have spent time in the listed countries will be required to go through the full vetting of the regular visa process, which includes an in-person interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

The administration will issue waivers to the new procedures on a case-by-case basis to individuals who have traveled to the countries in question as journalists, aid workers, for military service or as a government or international organization representative. People who have traveled to Iran or Iraq for “legitimate business-related purposes” may also be eligible for a waiver.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the new rules “reflected a compromise” between the administration and Congress, and “there are a lot of complexities” inherent in adjusting the nation’s visa waiver process.

In implementing the legislative deal the two sides struck last month, he said, the administration sought to balance two competing interests: national security and U.S. economic activity.

“So we want to make sure that we are doing everything that is necessary to keep the country safe. That is the top priority,” Earnest said. “But we also don’t want to unnecessarily disadvantage American businesses that are trying to do business overseas, because ultimately, that’s good for our economy and it’s good for creating jobs here in the United States.”

But dual nationals do not yet appear to be eligible for waivers under the new rules — a decision that is likely to upset some lawmakers.

Last month, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and other senators signed onto various letters urging congressional leaders to reconsider the specifics of the visa waiver language because of concerns it unfairly excluded dual nationals, even if they have never traveled to the region. They warned the measure would likely inspire reciprocal moves from the affected countries.

But despite calls to reexamine the program, the more hard-line House language is what ended up in the final budget deal.

The measure gives the secretary of Homeland Security the right to waive the new visa waiver restrictions, including those imposed on individuals with dual citizenship, if the waiver would be “in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States.” But the administration is not yet offering waivers to dual nationals.

Earnest said that while the new rules could penalize individuals who might have never been to one of the countries in question–such as someone born in France to an Iranian mother, who had never journeyed to Iran–at this point those applicants would have to undergo an additional level of screening.

“Our view is that that is something that could be refined to ensure that our screening system is applied in a way that prioritizes national security but also makes the system as efficient as possible,” he said.

Any attempt to expand waivers is likely to encounter opposition from congressional Republicans, who were furious last month when Secretary of State John Kerry sought to assuage Iranian concerns the new law could violate the nuclear pact by keeping potential tourists and investors from traveling to Iran, out of fears they would then later would be prevented from easily going to the United States.

The backlash to Kerry’s statement from Republicans was swift and emphatic.

“This legislation, which the President signed into law, allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive the new strict requirements for specific people if and only if it would benefit law enforcement or the national security interests of the United States,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement last month. “It was not and has never been Congress’s intent to allow the administration to grant a blanket waiver to travelers to and from Iran in order to facilitate the implementation of the Iran deal.”

Earnest said both administration officials and lawmakers shared the same goal of trying to prevent foreign fighters who had joined Islamist extremists from entering the United States and carrying out attacks. But he added it was important to “make distinctions” between those and other individuals who might have spent time in conflict zones.

“That is the goal of these measures,” he said, referring to foreign fighters. “That’s obviously much different than a journalist or an aid worker or somebody who has traveled as a part of a — you know, a regional of subnational government; so they traveled for official government purposes.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.