Senate bill would exempt Israel from visa waiver requirements

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Senate version of a bill that would enhance the U.S.-Israel relationship exempts Israel from some requirements in order to to allow it to join a visa waiver program.  

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The bill, introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in time for last week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference, mandates the inclusion of Israel in a program that allows citizens of designated countries to enter the United States without a prearranged visa.

The U.S. House of Representatives version of the same bill, introduced by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), also mandates such inclusion, but only once Israel meets the program’s requirements.

The Boxer-Blunt bill incorporates language from separate earlier bills by Reps. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in the Senate and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) in the House that exempts Israel from a requirement that qualifying countries must have maintained a “nonimmigrant refusal” rate of less than 3 percent.

“Nonimmigrant refusals” refer to the rate U.S. authorities turn down applicants for visas. Israel’s current refusal rate is 5.4 percent.

An official in Boxer’s office noted that there was a precedent for exempting countries from this requirement when in 2008 Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, South Korea, Lithuania were added to the visa waiver list, bringing it to 37 countries, where it now stands.

Each of those countries added in 2008 continues to maintain nonimmigrant visa refusal rates higher than Israel’s.

The other exemption is from a requirement in the law that participating countries provide “reciprocal privileges to citizens and nationals of the United States.”

The Senate version would require Israel to make “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.”

Israel has come under fire from Arab-American groups and some lawmakers in recent years for refusing entry to Americans of Arab descent, most recently refusing reentry to an English teacher at a Christian school in Ramallah who was returning from Christmas holidays in Jordan.

The inclusion of the visa waiver language in the Boxer-Blunt and Ros-Lehtinen-Deutch bills is significant, because these bills, which would designate Israel a “major strategic ally,” have significant backing and are more likely to pass than the earlier stand-alone visa waiver bills.

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