At the tail-end of 2015, Congress delivered an end-of-the-year present in the form of a trillion dollar omnibus spending bill that neither Democrats nor Republicans loved but begrudgingly supported because it averted a government shutdown. That bill, which was signed by President Obama, contains many disparate provisions, as massive and very rushed legislation is wont to do.
One such policy change included in that package was a tightening of the United States’ visa-waiver program to prevent most people from qualifying if they’d visited Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan since March 2011. Basically, the visa-waiver program lets travelers from select countries, including most European states, visit or vacation (stays of less than 90 days) in the U.S. without a formal visa application — and the screening it entails. About 20 million people take advantage of this passport-only travel, per NPR, which will surprise no one who’s walked through Times Square. But in the wake of the Paris attacks in November and the San Bernardino massacre a few weeks later, that policy was spotlighted as a potential loophole that radicalized citizens of visa-waiver countries — like France or Belgium, for example — could exploit to come to the U.S. and elude authorities.
Today, those new restrictions officially go into effect. The Obama administration did say they may make exceptions on a case-by-case basis, specifically for people who may be going to Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan to report or do humanitarian work. People who hold dual citizenship with one of those four countries — even if they have not actually visited there ever — will also need to apply for a visa now, which some lawmakers have criticized as being too stringent.
The Obama administration will also consider exemptions for people who’ve traveled to Iraq and Iran for “legitimate business-related purposes,” which has angered some congressional Republicans who are accusing the White House of doing everything in its power to successfully implement this Iran nuclear deal. Officials in Tehran had apparently warned Washington that including Iran among those countries would deter foreigners from doing business in Iran and might violate the nuclear deal. Secretary of State Kerry had tried to ease Iran’s concerns last month, and got an earful from the GOP. Iran was ultimately included on that list, but some Republicans are saying some of the exceptions the administration is considering violate the intent of the law passed by Congress.
Speaking of that bill, in the weeks leading up to the legislation, Congress was hotly debating (along with state governors and presidential candidates) the fate of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. House GOP leaders, with some Democratic support, had pushed through a bill in November that would stop the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees until each was vetted and approved by the Secretary of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Director of National Intelligence. The House wanted to put that measure into that omnibus spending bill, too, but it never made it in. Republican leaders vowed to take it up in 2016 — which they did.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans tried to bring to the floor a bill that would block Syrian and Iraqi refugees, but were ultimately stymied by Democratic leaders who said they’d happily consider it — if, in exchange, everyone got to vote on a few amendments that Republicans were sure to loathe. Those included an amendment that would have banned people on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms and another that would have recorded senators’ positions on Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, says Roll Call. Since no GOP leaders quite wanted to go there — especially in an election year — the bill died in the Senate and probably won’t be taken up again anytime soon.
All refugees, including those from Syria and Iraq, go through an extensive screening process as is, so it’s likely that any bill would have been vetoed once it reached President Obama’s desk anyway.