Republicans were outraged Thursday after the Obama administration eased new visa requirements for certain European travelers who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan in the last five years — accusing President Barack Obama of appeasing Tehran and charging that the changes would undercut efforts to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.
"The Obama administration is blatantly breaking the law, a law the president himself signed," said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas. "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."
Both McCaul and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said that the new exemptions had already been rejected by Congress.
"President Obama and his administration's decision to abuse their limited waiver authority and allow scores of people who have traveled to or are dual nationals of countries like Iraq and Syria flies in the face of reason and congressional intent," Goodlatte said. "This needlessly compromises our national security and the safety of the American people."
The Virginia senator cited a report Tuesday from the Department of Homeland Security
saying that more than a half-million temporary visa holders — including thousands from the Middle East — illegally remained in the U.S. last year.
"Terrorism has and continues to be a very real threat to our country, and it’s unconscionable that the president and his administration continue to weaken the enforcement of our immigration and national security laws," Goodlatte said.
The announcement came on the same day that Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that some of the more than $100 billion Iran received with the easing of sanctions last week under the nuclear deal could be used to support terrorism.
The State Department and DHS said that the new restrictions could be made under a law Congress passed in December that sought to block Europeans who have fought for the Islamic State and were likely to commit Islamic jihadism after entering the United States.
Currently, citizens of 38 countries, primarily in Europe, can generally travel to the United States without applying for a visa — though they still must submit biographical information to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA.
But under the eased restrictions, people who traveled to those countries as journalists, for official work with humanitarian agencies or on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations and provincial or local governments may still be eligible to visit the United States without first obtaining a visa.
In addition, those who have traveled to Iran since July 14, 2015 — when the Iran nuclear deal was completed — or Iraq for "legitimate business-related purposes" can also apply to come to the United States under the visa waiver program.
Homeland Security said that waivers for some ESTA applicants would be granted on a "case-by-case" basis. Those who are denied visa-free travel can still apply for visa through a U.S. embassy in their home country, the agency said.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner also said that waivers and exemptions would be applied "on a case-by-case basis."
Toner, however, had no answer for various questions posed by reporters, including who has Iranian citizenship.
Iran has claimed that many people of Iranian heritage as citizens even if they did not know it or don't consider themselves Iranian dual nationals. The administration's move did not make clear how the U.S. would approach the issue.
The changes only affect a small number of Europeans, but it has prompted great concern in countries whose citizens generally enjoy visa-free travel to the United States.
In addition, Iran has accused the U.S. of violating the nuclear deal by penalizing legitimate business travel to the Islamic Republic.
Iraq and Syria were targeted specifically because ISIS has seized huge swaths of land in each country. Tehran, along with Sudan and Syria, are designated by the U.S. as state sponsors of terrorism.
Toner said the administration's move reflected concerns about "European fighters returning from Syria or Iraq or elsewhere and then trying to come to the United States via visa-free travel.
"It's a recognition that threat exists and an attempt to add another layer of security," he said.
But that was not good enough for Republicans, including Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who told Politico
that he was still trying to "digest" the White House's move.
"I’d rather deal with a legislative fix than just executive action, but I think that they need to have some discretion there," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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