Civil rights groups at odds with CT lawmakers over visa program

Washington – A coalition of civil rights groups have joined this week to condemn Congress’ response to the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino – including legislation supported by Connecticut’s Democratic lawmakers.

The coalition, led by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, includes the Mexican-American Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights organizations. They are concerned about legislation that targets Syrian and Iraqi citizens – and even people with dual citizenship living in Europe and other places.

“The Latino community is unfortunately very familiar with being subjected to immigration policies that are culturally discriminatory,” said MALDEF attorney Andrea Senteno.

The civil rights groups held a press conference in Washington this week to denounce what they called “xenophobic” and “Islamophobic” words and actions.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump this week proposed barring all Muslims – even Muslim Americans who are currently outside the country – from entering the United States. Ben Carson, another Republican contender for the White House, has said a Muslim should never be president.

But the civil rights groups said they are concerned more with action in Congress than harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Senteno said MALDEF opposed any policy that singled out “any religion, culture or nationality.” So do the other civil rights groups.

That puts them at odds with the members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation.

Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd and Jim Himes, D-4th District voted for a bill that would increase scrutiny of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

All five members of Connecticut’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives voted for a bill that passed with overwhelming support, 407 to 19,  that would change the Visa Waiver Program to make it more difficult for Syrian, Iraqis and Sudanese to enter the United States.

“As we face down the terrorist threat, we must do two things. We must steward our values, including our liberties, and remain a country that is open to visitors and refugees, regardless of race or religion,” Himes said. “We must also assure that every mode of entry is protected from those who would do us harm. Last week’s bill improved the security on our visa waiver program, a particularly popular open door.”

“The visa waiver bill passed by Congress earlier this week was not perfect, but it was a step in the right direction by improving weaknesses in our national security systems,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. “As the president said in his remarks on Sunday, the threat posed by ISIL is real. The bill, which was backed by the White House and passed with strong bipartisan support, strengthened an outdated screening system.”

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said “this bill is not a panacea, but it is a first step towards thoughtfully and effectively strengthening security.”

The Visa Waiver Program allows visitors from nearly 40 U.S. allies to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa as long as they stay fewer than 90 days. The list includes most European countries, along with Australia, Chile, Japan and South Korea.

Terrorists don’t want passports stamped

Syria, Iraq and Sudan are not part of the Visa Waiver Program. But the visa waiver bill would bar nationals from other countries who have visited Syria and Iraq in the past five years from entering the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.

It would also prohibit Syrians and Iraqis and Sudanese who have dual citizenship and are living in a European country from traveling to the United States under the visa waiver program.

The prohibition would apply to even those who were born in Europe and never stepped foot in any of the designated countries.

“There are other avenues to strengthen security other than placing blanket exclusion on all countries designated under this bill and groups of people based on their national origin, an Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee statement said.

ADC President Samer Khalaf said Congress’ rush to approve legislation without enough debate of consideration of the consequences mirrored the rush to file legislation to “protect our national security” after the 9-11 attacks.

“As of right now there is no evidence whatsoever that any Syrian refugee has committed any acts of violence in this country,” he said.

Khalaf also said the proposed changes to the Visa Waiver Program would make it harder for journalists, aid workers and people who are investigating human rights violations to travel to the United States.

He also said terrorists aren’t likely to make use of the Visa Waiver Program, which would result in a government record of their travels. They would sneak into Turkey and other countries thorough porous borders instead.

“They are not going to have their passports stamped,” he said.

Nevertheless, the move to make it harder for people from certain nations to travel to the United States, as visitors or refugees, has great support in Congress.

“Improvements needed to be made to strengthen the security screening process for those seeking to travel to the United States from Visa Waiver Program countries,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District,  “My greatest responsibility as a representative is ensuring our national security and the safety of American families.”

Esty denounced “rash proposals to ban all visitors because of their religion or block desperate refugees fleeing violence and terror” saying those would not make Americans safe.

“We should instead focus on the most likely threats to our homeland if we are serious about improving our national security,” she said. “This bill does just that.”

Tim Brown, communications director for Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, cited Obama administration support for changes in the visa program.

“In the wake of the Paris attacks, a range of stakeholders from the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the White House have called for common sense reforms to the Visa Waiver Program that are necessary to improve national security,” he said.

But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the first to call for changes to the program, said he’s not sold on the bill approved by the House this week.

“The House bill is not going to be the exact right answer,” Murphy said, saying the provision on dual citizens would be one thing he’d change.

But Murphy and other Democrats believed changing the Visa Waiver Program is a preferred alternative to making it harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to enter the United States.

“It remains my belief that the Visa Waiver Program is one of the greatest vulnerabilities we have,” he said.

Murphy said he hoped the Senate would take up the legislation before the end of the year, but there are few days left in the legislative calendar.

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