A Lopsided U.S. Visa-Waiver
By Yousef Munayer | reposted from the New York Times
It is said that naturalized United States citizens often have a greater appreciation of their adopted country than those born on American soil.
As a naturalized U.S. citizen who has traveled extensively, particularly across borders where the very notion of citizenship can be a contentious political idea, I have a deep appreciation for my navy blue passport.
After a recent trip, as I made my way from the plane through passport control in Newark’s Liberty Airport, I found myself awestruck.
“Welcome back,” said the immigration official, after scanning my passport, briefly glancing at a computer screen and letting me pass — a process that took about 30 seconds.
“That’s it?” I found myself thinking. I had only been gone three weeks and had already managed to forget what it felt like to have my rights as a citizen respected.
I’d just come back from traveling through Israel and the Palestinian territory it occupies. In that part of the world, one approaches immigration kiosks prepared for a lengthy wait, inspections and harassing questions (this is true even with Israeli citizenship, which I also hold). The very choice of which travel document to present is considered a political act. The languages I spoke (or didn’t speak), my religion and line of work were all variables that could extend the time I spent at the border crossing.
But back in the States, it didn’t matter to the man at the kiosk that I had a funny-sounding name. It didn’t matter what my religion or ethnicity was. It didn’t matter what my political opinions were. In a nation where citizenship is valued and discrimination is shunned, the re-entry process took only seconds. I was reminded of the tremendous value of my U.S. citizenship and the navy blue booklet I held in my hand.
I just wish Barbara Boxer would appreciate the value of U.S. citizenship as well. The senator is spearheading legislation that would dangerously devalue it.
The U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, backed by the pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, was introduced by Ms. Boxer and has 53 co-sponsors in the Senate. It legislates, for the first time, the inclusion of Israel in the U.S. visa-waiver program. This means that Israelis can enter the United States without a visa.
Israel has long sought this prized designation but has always faced resistance from the State Department because the program requires reciprocity. Israel has been known to routinely deny entry to American citizens, often Arabs or Muslims or others sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, under the usually bogus pretext of “security concerns.”
This discriminatory treatment of U.S. citizens prompted several members of Congress to write to Israel’s ambassador expressing concern that Israeli border officials were “disproportionately singling out, detaining and denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans,” and requesting all Americans be “treated equally at Israeli ports of entry.”
Sandra Tamari’s case is one example. The 42-year-old U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent traveled to Israel in May of 2012 for an interfaith conference. Upon entry, she was required to provide her Gmail password to Israeli interrogators, who insisted on searching her personal account. After refusing to comply with this and other intrusive requests, she was denied entry and deported.
Numerous similar cases of U.S. citizens being asked for their e-mail and Facebook passwords prior to deportation have been reported. The case of Nour Joudah is another example. She was teaching English in a West Bank high school on a valid, multiple-entry work visa issued by Israel. When she attempted to re-enter Israel after traveling to Jordan for Christmas break, she was denied entry and deported.
Senator Boxer’s legislation, versions of which might pass in both the House and Senate, would allow Israel an exemption to reciprocity. In other words, Israel would get to determine which American citizens it permits to enter.
As an Israeli citizen who is also a Palestinian, I know this problem all too well. I’ve witnessed firsthand the way Israel discriminates against its own non-Jewish citizens. I am routinely held up for questioning and inspection while watching Jewish Israelis zip by.
As an American citizen, I’m outraged that Senator Boxer and her colleagues are trying to pass a law that allows Israel to discriminate against U.S. citizens. All elected officials took an oath to defend the Constitution. By legalizing discrimination against U.S. citizens they will violate that oath in both word and spirit.
Even if the problematic language giving Israel an exception is removed from the bill, including Israel in the visa-waiver program at all means that Arab-and Muslim-Americans will have to rely on ill-equipped government agencies like the State Department to enforce reciprocity. And unfortunately, the State Department has been able to offer little assistance to U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim origin who are denied entry to Israel, despite what our passports say about allowing Americans to “pass without delay or hindrance.” Instead, the U.S. government has regularly yielded to Israeli demands when it comes to the discriminatory treatment of Americans.
This is likely to continue. That means American citizens will continue to get turned away by Israel because of their ethnic background while the United States opens its doors to all Israelis.
This unequal treatment should not be permitted. Under no circumstances should the United States extend visa-waiver privileges to Israel, or any other state, unless it is willing to guarantee and demand equal treatment of its citizens and their protection from discrimination based on religion, ethnicity or national origin.
Yousef Munayyer is executive director of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, a Palestinian advocacy group in Washington.