Suddenly, what started as a focused effort to close that one loophole morphed into a broader waiver exclusion policy. In the House of Representatives, the House Judiciary Committee took up the issue, and countries began to be rather arbitrarily added to the list. Now, instead of just the spots of current conflict, countries from which we could document a risk, other countries were added—Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen. Sudan, which is a source and sponsor of terrorism, doesn’t enjoy the visa-waiver program under any circumstances anyway, so adding it to the list made no sense. There seemed to be some other agenda at work. For good measure, the House negotiators added Iran, of course, and this addition has proven to have a very negative and unjustified effect on many Iranian American friends in Arizona and around the country who have had their travel curbed for no apparent reason.
It is difficult to find successful tech firms in Silicon Valley that don’t have Iranian Americans in positions of leadership. Groups like Persian Tech Entrepreneurs and others are a testament to their growing talent and influence. But it’s not just Silicon Valley—by any metric, Iranians in America, many of them having fled Khomeini’s revolution, have become successful, and have become American. Those of Iranian descent born in Europe or the United States have often had dual citizenship automatically conferred on them by Tehran, often without their knowledge. When you impose a travel ban involving Iran, you’re going to affect a lot of people traveling to do business and to visit family.
As for the visa-waiver issue, it’s worth keeping in mind that when we stop allowing Europeans in automatically, European visa-waiver countries might reciprocate, which burdens Americans a lot more than it does the Europeans, because all of a sudden there are 38 countries that Americans have to get a visa to travel to. The common-sense fix that Senator Feinstein and I had hoped to achieve was, in the face of the broader House list, becoming a mess. But the Obama administration was so fearful that the Congress was on the path to doing away with the refugee program altogether that it swallowed the expanded list. Senators Durbin, Heller, Feinstein, and I pressed the White House not to concede to the expanded list—that doing so would create all sorts of unintended and unnecessary problems—and we also lobbied House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to limit our visa-waiver amendment to just Syria and Iraq, but by then the cake was baked.
And that’s how we got that list.
Under questions and pressure, in the atmosphere of a new administration, all of a sudden the list of forbidden countries became “Obama’s list,” with all sorts of rigor being ascribed to its formulation, as if it had been carried down the mountain on stone tablets rather than being haphazardly assembled as it was bounced around House committees.