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The big spending bill that Congress passed last week before adjourning for the holidays contains a provision that's proving to be troublesome. It tightens the so-called visa waiver program that allows residents of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa. The aim of the tightening is to prevent terrorists from entering the country. But critics say it's also going to keep families apart, and it's already causing some diplomatic difficulties. NPR’s Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Mina Bagherzadeh was hoping she’d see her sister this summer, maybe even her elderly mother. Bagherzadeh is a 47-year-old Iranian-American who lives here in Washington, D.C. Her mother and sister live in Germany, where the family fled after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Each summer, the family members take turns visiting each other, and this summer Mina says it was their turn to come here. But now, it would be a little more complicated.
MINA BAGHERZADEH: They will now need to go visit a U.S. consulate, file the application, pay the fee, do an interview and wait and hope that they will be given a visa to come and visit us.
NAYLOR: That's because Mina’s sister and mother are dual nationals, citizens of Germany and Iran and so no longer qualify for the visa waiver program. It will cost her sister and mother $160 to apply for the visa they didn’t need the last time they visited. Now, this may seem like a minor irritation, a bit of travel hassle. But for Mina Bagherzadeh, it's more than that. She says she's taught her two young daughters how lucky they are to have been born in the U.S. and about the country's values. But now she feels that as an Iranian-American, she and her family are being singled out.
BAGHERZADEH: I feel a sense of being different than my American peers. And I don't think that's right, and that’s not what this country is built on. And I fear that my daughters are going to feel that as well.
NAYLOR: This is not just an issue for Iranian-Americans, says Joanne Lin of the American Civil Liberties Union. Dual nationals from Iraq, Sudan and Syria are affected as well.
JOANNE LIN: This is patent discrimination by nationality and parentage. It’s wrong; it's un-American. In this country, people are not judged by their nationality or the citizenship of their parents.
NAYLOR: Lin wants Congress to take another look at the law that she says was passed as a knee-jerk reaction to the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. For one thing, she says the European Union may want to retaliate with its own changes, making it more difficult for Americans to travel without a visa to EU countries.
LIN: Because the program is based on reciprocity, the real question becomes, how are the European governments coming to respond to this new law and will their response have any impact on U.S. citizens traveling abroad to Europe?
NAYLOR: And there is another issue with the new requirement. The government of Iran is objecting, saying the provision will limit travel and interfere with the resumption of economic ties between Iran and the West - ties that are allowed if Iran complies with the recently-signed nuclear agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry sent a letter to his Iranian counterpart, saying in essence not to worry, that the provision can be waived. That, in turn, has outraged Republican members of Congress and other critics of the accord. Mark Dubowitz is director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
MARK DUBOWITZ: I think Iran is certainly in no position to be complaining. It’s in flagrant violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions, it’s holding American hostages and it’s fanning the flames of sectarian warfare in the Middle East that is certainly proving to be a massive recruitment boom for ISIS. So this is exactly the wrong time to be giving Tehran any more unilateral benefits.
NAYLOR: The Department of Homeland Security has yet to outline how the new law will be implemented. And republicans in Congress are vowing to call in Secretary of State Kerry to explain his assertion that the provision can be waived. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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