UPDATE: Frequently Asked Questions on the Visa Waiver Reform Bill (H.R. 158/S. 2362)

This post is out of date. See our latest FAQ.

On December 8, the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 158) to reform the visa waiver program, which enables citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States without a visa.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are now negotiating whether to include the visa waiver reform bill in the “omnibus” appropriations act, a must-pass spending bill to keep the government funded. Government funding is currently set to run out at midnight on December 16, so the omnibus must be passed by Wednesday.

The visa waiver bill, as passed by the House, would render Iranian dual-nationals and foreigners who have traveled to Iran in the past five years ineligible to visit the United States under the visa waiver program. This would not directly target Americans, but – because the visa waiver program operates on reciprocity – the visa waiver program countries are likely to respond with reciprocal measures that could render Iranian Americans ineligible for the visa waiver program, effectively creating a second tier of American citizens traveling abroad.

Below are answers to key questions on the discriminatory bill:

Where does the bill restrict Iranians?

The bill applies to Iran through the state sponsors of terrorism provision.

In section 3 of H.R. 158, the bill restricts the visa waiver program to any national of a designated state sponsor of terrorism under section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act, as well as to any foreign national who has traveled to such country. This list includes Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Syria is listed explicitly along with Iraq as a country that would render one ineligible for the program. Iran and Sudan are included specifically because they are designated as state sponsors of terrorism.

How does the bill impact Iranian Americans?

Iranian Americans are likely to be directly impacted because the visa waiver program operates on the system of reciprocity. France, for example, accepts American travelers without a visa because we accept French travelers without a visa. However, if we bar certain French citizens from the visa waiver program, France could then respond by applying the same restrictions to Americans. As the bill targets dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan, it is likely that reciprocal measures would target dual nationals from those same countries living in the United States, including Iranian Americans.

The European Union already has laws in place to expedite reciprocal restrictions in the event that a third country imposes such restrictions on European nationals. 

The direct target of the bill includes Iranian dual nationals from eligible countries, as well as non-Iranian nationals from those countries who have visited Iran in the past five years. They would be forced to apply for a visa in order to travel to the United States. However, Iranian Americans would likely be impacted by reciprocal restrictions in eligible countries.

Will this bill affect Iranian citizens in possession of or seeking U.S. visas, or Americans seeking to travel to Iran?

This bill will not affect Iranian citizens in possession of or seeking a U.S. visa. Iran is not eligible for the visa waiver program, so Iranian citizens who are not dual nationals of countries eligible for the visa waiver program would not be affected by this bill.

This bill would not prohibit Americans from traveling to Iran. However, reciprocal actions among European nations and other countries eligible for the visa waiver program could bar Americans who have traveled to Iran from traveling to those countries without a visa.

However, it is possible that further restrictions will be enacted by Congress that specifically target Iranians travelling to the United States, or Iranian Americans who have travelled to Iran.

I am an American citizen or green card holder who is planning to visit Iran. Will this affect my ability to return to the United States?

No. This bill will not bar U.S. citizens or green card holders from re-entering the United States after travel to Iran. This bill would solely affect travel between the U.S. and the 38 countries participating in the visa waiver program. Iran is not eligible for the visa waiver program.

What happens next?

The fight depends heavily on whether the discriminatory provisions of the visa waiver program bill are included in a must-pass spending bill known as the omnibus. The omnibus, which funds the federal government, is likely to be revealed today.

If the provisions of the visa waiver reform bill that discriminate against Iranian dual nationals and those that have traveled to Iran are not included in the omnibus, we will have likely succeeded in blocking Congress from passing the bill this year. This would be a key victory in the opening phase of this campaign. However, our fight would not be over, as the Senate could look to pass H.R. 158 separate from the spending bill in the new year.

If part or all of the discriminatory provisions are included in the omnibus, they will be very difficult to remove, and will likely pass both Houses and be signed into law by the President.

Although NIAC Action made the Obama administration aware of the flaws in the bill, the administration has thus far only expressed support for the broader legislation. The Visa Waiver bill was initially supported by the White House and prominent Congressional Democrats as a means to convince House Republicans to drop an attempt to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from coming to the United States and to instead focus on fixing loopholes in the Visa Waiver Program. While many lawmakers now have concerns about the measures targeting dual-nationals under the House version of the Visa Waiver Program bill, there are worries that opposing the visa waiver program language would open the door for House Republicans to add the refugee-blocking legislation to the omnibus instead.

Could the bill impact the nuclear deal?

Under paragraph 29, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) obligates the United States and other parties to the agreement to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran.” By barring individuals who have traveled to Iran since 2011 from eligibility in the visa waiver program, many business executives who travel to Iran to explore permissible trade under the JCPOA could be barred from eligibility in the visa waiver program.

While the intent of why Iran was included among countries that would render one ineligible for the visa waiver program is unclear, this could be interpreted as interference with the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran as permitted under the JCPOA. Iran has signaled that it will monitor the situation.

Are we making a difference?

Yes! NIAC Action staff and grassroots leaders have ensured that leading Senators and Representatives are aware of the problems in the bill. Many Senators, including those in Democratic leadership, have discussed whether they will be able to block the discriminatory provisions. There may be more traction in blocking the provisions that discriminate on the basis of nationality than the provisions that target travelers to Iran.

NIAC Action grassroots teams and the entire Iranian-American community have been incredibly engaged in this effort, which has given us a fighting chance to block the bill. NIAC Action members have sent more than 47,000 messages and 1,900 phone calls to Congress to tell them to stop the bill.

How do we stop this?

Lawmakers are trying to insert the discriminatory visa language into the omnibus spending bill that must pass by Wednesday, December 16 in order to keep the government funded.

The path to victory is to convince enough in Congress to oppose inserting the discriminatory language in the omnibus. If we can block this language from being adding to the omnibus in the next few days, we win for the year.

Lawmakers may try to bring this up again next year, but it will be much more difficult as a standalone measure. The Senate is unlikely to pass the discriminatory language unless it is bundled into a must-pass bill, which is why proponents are trying to attach it into the omnibus.

Ultimately this issue will be decided by lawmakers in Congress, which why it is critical for constituents to weigh in with their elected officials in the House and Senate via calls, email, and social media. We are also in continuing conversations with senior officials at the White House as well as in the European Union to encourage them to weigh in as well.

Will the bill become law?

The discriminatory provisions of H.R. 158 have a strong chance of becoming law, including the restrictions on Iranian dual nationals and foreigners who have traveled to Iran. The bill contains a number of measures outside of those targeting dual nationals that are deemed beneficial by members of both parties. The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor last week, 407-19. There is a strong chance that the bill is folded into the omnibus, though leaders of both parties have been alerted to the problematic provisions. Last week, 13 Representatives who voted for H.R. 158 realized their error and urged the Senate to remove the discriminatory provisions.

Our best chance to block the discriminatory provisions lies in preventing them from being incorporated into the omnibus. Then, we will have to work to make sure Congress doesn’t pick them up in the new year.

The further along this gets in the legislative process, the harder it will be to stop. Take action today!