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These Changes To Tighten Visa Waiver Program Are Now In Effect

The Obama administration is implementing changes — voted into law by Congress late last year — that tighten the visa waiver program, specifically targeting Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. But the administration is reserving the right to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Under the visa waiver program, or VWP, residents of 38 countries can visit the U.S. without a visa. Some 20 million people visited the U.S. in 2014 under the program, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Now, under changes to the program that were voted into law as part of the omnibus budget bill last month, some individuals who would otherwise be eligible for the program will instead be required to apply for a visa. That includes anyone who has visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria since March 1, 2011, with some exceptions.

Controversially, the changes also apply to dual-national individuals, who are citizens of both a VWP country and one of the four targeted countries.

The ACLU has objected to that provision, noting that some dual-national citizens — of Syria, for instance — may have that status through their parents and never have visited the country in question themselves.

"It is wrong and un-American to punish groups without reason solely based on their nationality, national origin, religion, gender, or other protected grounds," the ACLU wrote in a letter to Congress in December.

Being removed from the VWP doesn't mean a person is banned from traveling to the U.S.; that person will have to apply for a visa, like residents of non-VWP countries.

The Obama administration also says that the Secretary of Homeland Security can choose to waive the new restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

Those who have traveled to the restricted countries for government business, on behalf of a humanitarian NGO, as a journalist or for certain business activities might be eligible for waivers, the administration says in a statement.

"In addition, we will continue to explore whether and how the waivers can be used for dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan," the statement reads.

That has raised the ire of several supporters of the original legislation. The author of the bill, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., along with House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, has accused the Obama administration of violating the law by allowing for exceptions.

"All waivers announced by the White House were explicitly rejected by Congress during our negotiations with the Administration," they said in a statement. "This is not a difference of opinion over statutory interpretation, it is a clear contradiction of the law."

The Obama administration says the changes to the waiver program are in effect as of Jan 21. But an Iranian-born British reporter, the BBC's Rana Rahimpour, says she was blocked from flying to the U.S. on Jan. 19 and told she was prevented from traveling because of the new rules.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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