APN Legislative Round-Up: Week ending May 10, 2013

1. Bills, Resolutions & Letters
2. The Israel/Visa Waiver Program Controversy - the Facts
3. Hearings
4. Members on the Record
5. From the Press/Blogs

1. Bills, Resolutions, & Letters

(ARM SYRIA OPPOSITION) S. 856: Introduced 5/6 by Menendez (D-NJ), the "Syria Stabilization Act of 2013." Referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. The press release from Menendez announcing the legislation is available here. On 5/9, Menendez pushed his bill during a discussion on the Senate floor on Syria, here; full floor discussion here. In an unusual move (House and Senate members generally ignore each other), Rep. Buchanan (R-FL) issued a statement criticizing the bill as "reckless."

(MORE IRAN SANCTIONS) S. 892: Introduced 5/8 by Kirk (R-IL) and four cosponsors, "A bill to amend the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 to impose sanctions with respect to certain transactions in foreign currencies, and for other purposes." Referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Kirk's press release touting introduction of the bill is available here. On 5/9 House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Engel (D-NY) issued a statement noting,

"The Committee will soon consider and pass H.R. 850, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013. This bipartisan legislation, which we introduced in February, now has 315 cosponsors in the House. Among other things, this bill would strengthen existing sanctions by authorizing the President to restrict significant third-party commercial trade with Iran. We are also examining other ways to strengthen the overall impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime. We need crippling sanctions on the books and to have them fully implemented by the Administration.Yesterday, a bipartisan group of Senators, led by Senators Kirk and Manchin, introduced promising legislation to block Tehran's access to overseas foreign currency reserves. We will carefully review this bill with an eye toward incorporating this approach into our own legislation. "

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy issued a press release lauding the bill, here. Media coverage: ReutersAPNew York TimesLA TimesJTAWashington Free Beacon. For a detailed take on the implications of the bill for Asia, see: Platts.com: New US senate bill could hit Asian buyers of Iranian crude: sources

(EGYPT ADDED TO AXIS OF EVIL?) HR 1922: Introduced 5/9 by Gosar (R-AZ) and Sensenbrenner (R-WI), "To limit assistance to Iran, North Korea, Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan, and for other purposes." Referred to the Foreign Affairs and Rules Committees. Gosar's press release touting introduction of the bill is available here. He notes that the legislation "is intended to limit foreign aid to five countries that undermine U.S. foreign policy objectives" - bearing in mind that there is no U.S. assistance to Iran, North Korea, or Syria (and hasn't been for a very long time). So, in effect, this bill is really about ending U.S. funding for Egypt (and Pakistan).

Letters:

(IRAN) Ellison et al Dear Colleague: On 5/7, Reps. Ellison (D-MN), McDermott (D-WA), Lee (D-CA), and Conyers (D-MI) circulated a Dear Colleague draw members' attention to a recent New York Times articleon U.S. policy toward Iran, and the report that the report - authored by a bipartisan group of senior U.S. national security and military officials - that the article highlights.

2. The Israel/Visa Waiver Program Controversy - the Facts

As first reported in the March 8th edition of the Round-Up, there are two pending pieces of legislation, HR 938 and S. 462 which, among other things, deal with Israel and the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Since that time, there has been a great deal of reporting on the issue, culminating in a recent op-ed by the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), in which she defend the visa waiver provision in her bill (her arguments are examined in this JTA article).

Given that this is a very confusing issue, rooted in some confusingly written U.S. law, it seems like it would be a useful exercise to take a moment and lay out the facts of the matter.

The Visa Waiver Program

The visa waiver program is a program under which nationals of certain designated countries - nationals who meet specific requirements and come from countries that have met specific requirements - may travel to the U.S. for tourism/business (visits normally necessitating a B-1 or B-2 visa) without first obtaining a visa. Details of the program are availablehere. The text of the U.S. statute laying out the details of the visa waiver program (8 USC §1187 - Visa waiver program for certain visitors) can be found here.

In order for a country to be designated part of the visa waiver program, it must meet a number of requirements, laid out in section (c) of the statute, entitled "Designation of program countries." In addition, as noted above, visitors from such a country must also meet certain requirements, laid out in section (a) of the law, entitled "Establishment of program."

It must be emphasized that this program does NOT guarantee that travelers from participating countries will be granted entry to the U.S. upon arrival at a port of entry. That decision remains in the hands of immigration officials, who are empowered to determine, among other things, whether the visitor is a bona fide tourist or whether the visitor should be denied entry for security reasons. Likewise, visa waiver countries, while required to adopt a reciprocal policy - i.e., permit U.S. travelers to travel to their countries without visas - are not required under the visa waiver program to waive their sovereign right to deny entry to specific U.S. travelers for specific reasons (more on reciprocity, below).

S. 462 [the Boxer Bill] & the Visa Waiver Program

S. 462 covers a lot of ground in the U.S.-Israel relationship, including the issue of Israel becoming part of the visa waiver program. Specifically, S. 462 includes the following language:

SEC. 9. DESIGNATION OF ISRAEL AS VISA WAIVER PROGRAM COUNTRY.

Section 217(c)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1187(c)(2)) is amended--

(1) in the matter preceding subparagraph (A), by inserting `subparagraph (G) and' after `Except as provided in'; and

(2) by adding at the end the following:

`(G) ISRAEL- The State of Israel shall be designated as a program country on the date on which the Secretary of Homeland Security, after consultation with the Secretary of State, certifies that the Government of Israel--

`(i) has complied with all of the requirements set forth in subparagraphs (B) through (F); and

`(ii) has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.'.

The Boxer Bill & the NIV Refusal Rate - Specifics

As noted in the March 8th Round-Up, "The Senate bill [S. 462]...takes the extraordinary step of seeking to change the current U.S. law to create a special and unique exception for Israel in U.S. immigration law. Under S. 462, Israel would be exempted from the key existing requirement for the Visa Waiver program (a low refusal rate for non-immigrant visas)." The Boxer bill does this by amending section (c) of the existing law, entitled "Designation of program countries," to exempt Israel from requirement (A) under this section - the requirement that participant countries have a low non-immigrant visa refusal rate. That section of the existing law reads:

(A) Low nonimmigrant visa refusal rate

Either--

(i) the average number of refusals of nonimmigrant visitor visas for nationals of that country during--

(I) the two previous full fiscal years was less than 2.0 percent of the total number of nonimmigrant visitor visas for nationals of that country which were granted or refused during those years; and

(II) either of such two previous full fiscal years was less than 2.5 percent of the total number of nonimmigrant visitor visas for nationals of that country which were granted or refused during that year; or

(ii) such refusal rate for nationals of that country during the previous full fiscal year was less than 3.0 percent.

This effort to exempt Israel from the low visa refusal rate requirement has generated little controversy, possibly because it has been overshadowed by the reciprocity issue (below). Defenders of the effort note that other countries have been exempted or granted an exception from the low NIV refusal rate in order to participate in the program. As has been noted previously in the Round-Up (see here and here), adding Israel to the visa waiver program has long been problematic, based solely on the fact that Israel doesn't meet the visa refusal rate requirement. The high refusal rate is linked to the fact that Israelis coming to the U.S. on tourist visas often stay on to live/work in the U.S. illegally. This has been such a serious problem that last year the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv produced avideo warning Israelis against doing so (read about it here). More hereand here.

The Boxer Bill & Reciprocity - Specifics

The Boxer bill, in addition, seeks to add a new, Israel-only paragraph related to the issue of reciprocity. The reciprocity issue, notably, is not part of the same section of the law as the NIV refusal rate. Rather, it comes under section (a), entitled "Establishment of program". That section includes - as the very first condition required of a foreign national seeking entry to the U.S. under the visa waiver program - the following hard-and-fast language with respect to reciprocity:

The alien is a national of, and presents a passport issued by, a country which--

(A) extends (or agrees to extend ...reciprocal privileges to citizens and nationals of the United States...

The Boxer language appears to be an effort to water down this hard-and-fast requirement and turn it into a soft, subjective "best effort" requirement for Israel. The Boxer language is categorically not necessary in order to address legitimate Israeli security-related concerns about specific U.S. travelers, since, as discussed above, inclusion in the visa waiver program does NOT obligate a foreign country to give up its sovereign right to refuse entry to specific U.S. travelers based on its own specific reasons.

As noted in the March 8th Round-Up, "This apparently is an effort to circumvent the problematic Visa Waiver program requirement that participating countries grant "reciprocal privileges to citizens and nationals of the United States." The reciprocity requirement potentially poses a barrier for Israel participating in the Visa Waiver Program. U.S. citizens are already not required to obtain a visa for travel to Israel. However, Israel's regular, arbitrary/discriminatory treatment of U.S. citizens traveling both to Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, in particular U.S. citizens of Arab descent or U.S. citizens viewed as sympathetic to the Palestinians, appears to contradict the reciprocity requirement in the law. This treatment of U.S. travelers is such a serious problem that it is covered in the U.S. official Travel Warning for Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza and has received significant press coverage. There has also been recent coverage/outrage over a relatively new Israeli policy of invasive searches of the personal email accounts of targeted travelers (see: here,hereherehere, and here).

The reciprocity-related language in the Boxer bill has, unsurprisingly, generated tremendous controversy.

The House Version - HR 938

HR 938 includes the following language related to Israel and the visa waiver program:

SEC. 9. REPORT ON ELIGIBILITY OF ISRAEL FOR VISA WAIVER PROGRAM.

(a) Statement of Policy- It shall be the policy of the United States to include Israel in the list of countries that participate in the visa waiver program under section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1187) when Israel satisfies the requirements for inclusion in such program specified in such section.

(b) Report- Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit to the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives and the Committee on the Judiciary of the Senate a report on the extent to which Israel satisfies the requirements specified in section 217 of the Immigration and Nationality Act for inclusion in the visa waiver program under such section and what additional steps, if any, are required in order for Israel to qualify for inclusion in such program.

None of this language seeks to amend existing law. Part (a) is an expression that Israel should be included as part of the visa waiver program - with no more effect on policy than a sense of Congress. Part (b) is an actual legislative requirement that, if passed into law, would mean that the Secretary of State would have to submit a report to Congress detailing what, if anything, prevents Israel from becoming part of the visa waiver program, and what would need to change for it to be included.

3. Hearings

May 15: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing entitled, "U.S. Policy Toward Iran." Scheduled witnesses are Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David S. Cohen, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

May 15: Immediately following the hearing (above), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will meet in a CLOSED hearing to receive an Intelligence Update on Iran from national security briefers.

May 15: The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing entitled, "Preventing a Nuclear Iran." Scheduled witnesses are Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David S. Cohen, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. The press release announcing the hearing, including comments by Chairman Royce (R-CA), is available here.

May 14: The Senate Armed Services Committee will meet to receive a CLOSED briefing on the situation in Syria. Scheduled witnesses are James Miller, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, Director, Strategic Plans and Policy (J-5) Joint Chiefs of Staff.

4. Members on the Record

McCain (R-AZ), Levin (D-MI), Menendez (D-NJ), Graham (R-SC) 5/9: Floor discussion regarding Syria
Forbes (R-VA) 5/9: Results published on his website of online constituent poll regarding what the U.S. should do in Syria
Royce (R-CA) & Engel (D-NY) 5/9: Chairman Royce, Ranking Member Engel Statement on Growing Iran Sanctions Momentum
Lautenberg (D-NJ) 5/8: Statement for Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing on Treasury Department and IRS Budget Requests (including comments in Iran)
Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) 5/7: Any Recognition By Google of "Palestine" Only Further Hampers Viable Peace Efforts Between Israel and the Palestinians (Spanish version here!)
Engel (D-NY) 5/7: "Recognizing the Jewish state of Israel" ("peace will only happen when the Arab nations recognize the Jewish State of Israel")
Cohen (D-TN) 5/7: The Turkish and Israeli Governments Working Together
Jackson-Lee (D-TX) 5/6: In Support of ``Jewish American Heritage Month''
Gohmert (R-TX) 5/6: Another rambling floor speech including some ranting about Islam, Sharia, Egypt, and Muslim countries

5. From the Press/Blogs

Time 5/9: Syria: Intervention is in Our Interest (Sen. John McCain)
Fox News 5/9: Anti-Israel UN human rights official can't be fired, State Department says
Jerusalem Post 5/8: CRS questions effectiveness of Iran sanctions
Cleveland Jewish News 5/8: [Sherrod] Brown assures AJC on Israel-US relations
LobeLog 5/8: NORPAC: The Mission and the Message
Al Monitor 5/7: Royce Says US Arms Not Required to Defeat Assad
Washington Post 5/5: Rep. Mike Rogers: U.S. should be 'coach' not 'sheriff' in Syria (also Rep. Ruppersberger)

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