visa views

Republicans link Hamas attack to immigration fights at home

GOP lawmakers have pressed the administration on more than half a dozen occasions to deport individuals who have expressed support for Hamas, in addition to other legislative initiatives

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) speaks with reporters after attending a closed-door, classified briefing for Senators at U.S. Capitol Building on February 14, 2023 in Washington, DC.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Republicans on Capitol Hill have honed in on efforts to revoke visas from individuals who’ve expressed support for Hamas and endorsed its attack in the ensuing weeks, in addition to efforts to bar Palestinians from entering the U.S. and link the Hamas attack to border security concerns.

While there’s no public evidence that anti-Israel protests nationwide, or on college campuses, have been attended principally by non-U.S. citizens, a recent statement by the administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could give renewed energy to these efforts.

MIT President Sally Kornbluth said last week that the school would not be suspending students who participated in an unauthorized anti-Israel protest because suspension could risk the students’ visas. Republicans who’ve been at the forefront of the visa revocation push highlighted this statement.

“‘Visa issues’ are not only a reason to suspend these pro-Hamas foreigners from school, but also to deport them immediately,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said in a post on X on Sunday.

Since the Hamas attack, Republicans in the House and Senate have tried on more than half a dozen occasions to pressure the administration to revoke visas for any foreign nationals who have expressed support for the Hamas attack on Israel, through legislation and letters to officials, as well as various other public statements. 

Some of those letters have focused on identifying and revoking visas from students who have participated in pro-Hamas demonstrations or otherwise expressed support for Hamas’ activities.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) attempted to fast-track passage of a resolution on revoking visas, but was blocked by Democrats.

“There is no First Amendment right to a visa,” Rubio said. “I’m not talking about U.S. citizens… This is very specifically written to talk about people who have espoused the terrorist activities of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This does not say ‘people who support a two-state solution,’ this does not say ‘people of Palestinian descent.’”

He also questioned Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on the subject at a hearing last week. Mayorkas said that those who endorse Hamas actions could face visa revocation.

If re-elected in 2024, former President Donald Trump has vowed to pursue similar policies: “aggressively deport resident aliens with jihadist sympathies,” revoke the visas of “anti-American and anti-semitic foreigners at colleges and universities” and dispatch immigration officers to “pro-jihadist demonstrations.”

Some Republicans have sought broader visa bans. Most notably, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) and 10 other Republicans introduced a bill to bar any Palestinian Authority passport holders from entering the U.S. and to deport any who have entered the U.S. since Oct. 1. That resolution earned condemnation from a wide range of Democrats, from the anti-Israel far left to a moderate pro-Israel Jewish lawmaker.

Other lawmakers in the Senate and House have separately sought to bar entry by PA passport holders into the U.S., albeit without the retroactive deportation provisions in Zinke’s bill. Another proposed bill would bar anyone who has expressed support for Hamas or other terror organizations from entry into the U.S.

There is not universal GOP buy-in for efforts to implement blanket bans on visas for Palestinians. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) noted to Jewish Insider last month, shortly after a trip to Israel, that “Israel very much differentiates between Hamas and the Palestinian people” and that the Department of Homeland Security vets visa applicants before they enter the U.S.

“What I’d really want to know is… what is [DHS’s] robustness of their ability to screen,” Cassidy continued. “If there is a Palestinian pharmacist in New Jersey, as I just read about, who wants to bring his uncle over, who’s 88 years old, because of concern about his safety — I think we can show some common sense here.”

And more than 100 Democrats have urged the administration to allow Palestinian visa-holders already in the U.S. to remain beyond the terms of their visas, and to receive work authorizations.

Scrutiny of visas for Palestinians and anti-Israel demonstrators also comes alongside a push by the GOP to connect the Oct. 7 attack to disputes with the Biden administration over border security — accompanied by another slew of letters to administration officials and legislative proposals.

Republicans have said in the weeks since the Hamas attack that the U.S. could be vulnerable to an Oct. 7-style attack at home by attackers infiltrating through the southern border. They have highlighted incidents of Middle Eastern nationals and individuals on terrorism watchlists attempting to cross the border illegally.

“These threats are closer than most Americans realize, and that’s because of our porous southwest border,” Rep. Mark Green (R-TN), the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said at a recent hearing. “I’m extremely concerned that terrorists will exploit these glaring vulnerabilities at our southwest border to attempt attacks inside the United States.” He also warned that college campuses could provide a “pretty large pool” of potential Hamas recruits inside the U.S.

Expert witnesses at the hearing warned of previous attempts by Iran and other malign actors to infiltrate the U.S. via the southern border, and said that they may have already done so. “I think we have to assume the worst,” Nathan Sales, a former U.S. coordinator for counterterrorism and envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, testified.

Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-MS) pushed back on these arguments, saying that border officials have said there has been “no indication of Hamas-directed foreign fighters trying to enter the United States,” and describing the GOP campaign as “politically motivated.” 

Thomas Warrick, the former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security, testified that illegal border crossings have not historically been a favored avenue for foreign terrorists and Iranian operatives. He said recruitment of individuals already inside the U.S., as well as cyberattacks, should be of concern.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.