visa-free travel

16 Senate Democrats say Israel still falls short of Visa Waiver Program requirements

‘While we would like to see Israel meet the program requirements for entry into the VWP before the September 30th deadline, it does not appear to be on a path to do so,’ the lawmakers wrote

Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua via Getty Images

People wait at the departure hall at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 28, 2021.

As Israel moves toward expected admission into the Visa Waiver Program later this year, a group of 16 Democratic senators suggested in a letter to top administration officials on Wednesday that Israel continues to fall short of the requirements for admission into the program and is unlikely to fix these alleged issues before its expected entry date.

Israel has long pursued entry into the program allowing visa-free entry into the United States, but has faced obstacles, including its rejection rate for visa applications and concerns about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Americans at its borders. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said earlier this year that Israel will likely be added to the program in July or August. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel is expected to enter the program in September and that it has enacted all of the necessary legislative changes to secure entry.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) led a letter with 14 of their colleagues to Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas saying that they “support Israel’s candidacy to join the VWP once it meets all of the requirements established by law” but highlight continued concerns about unequal treatment for some U.S. citizens that they say make it ineligible.

“Based on past experience and current policies and practices, significant changes will be needed for Israel to come into compliance with this requirement” for “equal treatment and freedom of travel for all U.S. citizens,” the letter reads. “While we would like to see Israel meet the program requirements for entry into the VWP before the September 30th deadline, it does not appear to be on a path to do so.”

The senators highlighted both State Department travel guidance warning of “significant difficulties and unequal and occasionally hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints” for Arab and Muslim Americans and “a number of existing Israeli policies and practices [that] negatively impact U.S. citizens based on their ethnicity, religion, and national origin.”

They argued that these provisions of Israeli law violate the conditions of the VWP, and press the administration officials for details on whether Israel will need to make further changes to its policies to join the VWP, and how the administration will monitor and hold Israel accountable once it is admitted into the program, if it violates the program’s conditions.

The lawmakers requested that the administration brief them on the issue within two weeks.

The letter was co-signed by Sens. Peter Welch (D-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Tina Smith (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

A bipartisan group of 18 senators led a letter to Blinken and Mayorkas in December of 2021 supporting Israel’s admission into the program. Left-wing House lawmakers sent two letters last year raising concerns about Israel’s admission.

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