The Obama administration on Thursday tightened rules in the visa waiver program for some European travelers who have recently visited terrorist hotspots in the Middle East, while at the same time it eased requirements for others, prompting two Republican lawmakers to accuse the president of "blatantly breaking the law."
People who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan in the past five years, or hold dual citizenship in those countries, will no longer be eligible for visa-free entry into the United States and will have to go through a more rigorous visa application process in order to enter the country, according to a joint statement from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, reports The Associated Press.
Individuals in those categories will now be required to apply for a visa using the regular immigration process embassies or consulates, meaning they will be interviewed and vetted by a U.S. consular official, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Republicans, however, were upset that the administration issued an exemption to allow people who traveled to the terrorist hotspots as journalists, humanitarian workers, or on behalf of international organizations or local governments to still travel to the country without first obtaining a visa. Another waiver was issued for people who have visited Iraq for "legitimate business-related purposes," or traveled to Iran after July 14, 2015, according to AP.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said Congress had already rejected the exemptions.
"The Obama administration is blatantly breaking the law, a law the president himself signed," McCaul, said, according to Fox News. "This is not a difference of opinion over statutory interpretation, it is a clear contradiction of the law and the agreement we reached with the White House. President Obama is again putting his relationship with Iran's supreme leader over the security of Americans."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the administration's decision to abuse their limited waiver authority "needlessly compromises our national security and the safety of the American people."
He added: "The Obama Administration is essentially rewriting the law by blowing wide open a small window of discretion that Congress gave it for law enforcement and national security reasons."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., believes the visa waiver program should be reformed, but said that "singling people out because of their national origin is fundamentally at odds with American values and invites discrimination against American citizens who are dual nationals," according to AP.
The visa waiver program allows citizens of 38 countries, the majority in Europe, to travel to the U.S. without first applying for visas, although the some 20 million who travel to the country each year under the program are still required to submit biographical information to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA.
The new rules were approved by Congress in December following the terrorist attacks in Paris. Lawmakers hope that tighter restrictions will prevent Europeans with ties to the Islamic State group from entering the U.S. and waging jihad.