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US lawmakers launch bipartisan push to drop visa requirement for Israeli travelers

50 House members pen letter to Biden’s cabinet members urging them to add Israel to Visa Waiver Program, a move the White House has already vowed to pursue

International passengers arrive at Miami international Airport before they are screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the US on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
International passengers arrive at Miami international Airport before they are screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the US on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

WASHINGTON — More than 50 members of the House of Representatives from both sides of the aisle penned a letter on Monday urging the Biden administration to add Israel to the US Visa Waiver Program.

The letter — sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — noted that the issue was on the agenda in recent meetings between top US and Israeli officials and that Mayorkas has said that Israel’s entry into the program was in the “pipeline.”

“Israel’s participation in this program would grow the US economy, strengthen national security at each of our borders, and increase opportunities for people-to-people exchange, which bolsters our already unique bilateral relationship,” read the letter, noting that the visa waiver program had enhanced security detection techniques.

Israel has for years sought entry to the program, which allows 90-day stays for travelers and does not require prearranged visas. Israelis see it as a means to enhance business and trade with the United States.

US officials have in the past listed numerous reasons why Israel has yet to enter the program — which already includes several dozen countries — including the country’s failure to crack down on Israelis who arrive as tourists and illegally work in malls and at rest stops, often selling beauty products. Israel also at times delays or denies entry to Arab Americans, which runs afoul of the requirement of nondiscriminatory reciprocal entry.

Other have noted the difficulties of detecting potential terrorists who might enter under a relaxed visa program, and that Israeli travelers are refused visas at higher rates than the minimum rate required for the program.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked meets with Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Secretary of Homeland Security and other officials, on November 18, 2021. (Shmulik Almani/Interior Ministry)

Monday’s letter was spearheaded by Republican Reps. Lee Zeldin, Michelle Fischbach and Brian Mast and Democratic Reps. Kathleen Rice, Grace Meng and Elaine Luria.

Current US law requires Israelis to apply for a visa in advance of their travels to the US — a process that often takes months, as it requires scheduling an appointment at the US embassy for a background interview during which consular staff seek to ensure that incoming travelers are not looking to remain in the US indefinitely. If a candidate passes the interview process, they must then submit their passport to the embassy, and it usually takes at least several weeks before it is returned with a visa inside.

The timeline has been further drawn out as a result of the pandemic, with some Israelis reporting that there are no available appointments at the embassy for at least a year.

For years, Israeli officials have sought to convince US administrations to add the country to the Visa Waiver Program, but Jerusalem has been hobbled by relatively high rejection rates, mainly because of recently discharged IDF soldiers looking to travel for extended periods of time, drawing the skepticism of US visa adjudicators.

But recent months have given Israelis reason for optimism. Former Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan made the issue one of his top priorities during his just-ended one-year tenure in Washington, meeting with Mayorkas to explain that discharged soldiers are not looking to remain in the US illegally and intend to return to Israel.

During a White House meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August, President Joe Biden said he had instructed his staff to work on adding Israel to the visa waiver program.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (R) shakes the hand of US President Joe Biden (C) as President Reuven Rivlin looks on in the Oval Office on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

And in an interview with The Times of Israel last week, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked predicted that Israelis will be able to visit the United States without a visa beginning in 2023.

Shaked met in Washington with Mayorkas, who tweeted afterward that his office “remains committed to working with Israel to help it meet all Visa Waiver Program requirements.”

There are two main obstacles that the sides will be tasked with ironing out in order to allow for Israel’s inclusion in the waiver program. The first will be lowering visa refusal rates to below three percent by October 2022. Erdan said in August that the current rate is roughly 4.5%.

The other hurdle will be granting the US access to Israeli criminal records in order to adjudicate visa requests from citizens with rap sheets — something that will require Knesset legislation, the interior minister explained.

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