House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) expressed frustration and outrage Wednesday at the Obama administration’s move to exempt Iran and other terror hot spots from a new law enhancing security measures in the Visa Waiver Program.
“The administration’s false reading of the law has the Congress and the American people wondering how much further will we bend backwards for Iran,” McCaul said, opening a committee hearing on the administration’s waivers for Iran. “We have paid them ransom for Americans, we’ve freed up billions of dollars for their rogue regime, and now the president is ignoring our own laws so we don’t interfere with Iran’s economic growth.”
While Congress mandated that dual nationals and travelers who recently visited countries of concern obtain a visa, last month the administration waived the new requirement for Visa Waiver Program travelers who visited Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Sudan for government, journalism, or humanitarian purposes. The administration also waived the requirement for travelers who went to Iran or Iraq for business purposes.
Hillary Batjer Johnson, the State Department’s deputy coordinator for Homeland Security in the Bureau of Counterterrorism, testified before the committee that the law granted the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive the new requirements if it is was in the national security interests of the U.S.
“After consulting with the Secretary of State the Secretary of Homeland Security has determined that as a general matter it is in the national security interests for the United States to administer waivers for certain types of ESTA applicants and whether those ESTA applicants will receive a waiver will be determined on a case by case basis,” Johnson said when pressed by McCaul.
ESTA is the system that determines eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program, which allows travelers from select countries to travel without a visa.
McCaul noted that such exemptions were debated in Congress but rejected and accused the administration of “rewriting the law that we wrote out of this committee” after the law passed and Iran objected to the regulations.
“The law says that if is in in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States it can be waived — the dual national and the travel restrictions could be waived,” Johnson responded, stressing that the exemptions are to be done on a case-by-case basis.
McCaul expressed his dismay at the administration’s actions to Johnson and the hearing’s second witness, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske.
“I got to tell you. This really defies the will and express intent of the law that we passed in the Congress,” he said.
“I am deeply disturbed by this and this committee will be exercising its oversight authority very strongly on this. We’re not saying they can’t come into the country, we’re just saying they have to go through the extra, additional layer of security and apply for a visa. In my opinion, once again, the president has put the best interests of Iran, over the security interests of the American people,” McCaul added.