WASHINGTON (JTA) – Israel’s discrimination against visiting Arab Americans is the primary reason it is not eligible for a program allowing Israeli tourists in to the United States without visas, the Obama administration said.
“The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said March 21 in her daily briefing with reporters.
The State Department warns Americans of Arab descent that they may be delayed or even turned back when arriving at Israeli points of entry.
Israel says its rate of refusal of entry for Arab Americans is not disproportionate and notes that under the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians, foreigners of Palestinian descent undergo a different entry protocol.
There have been a number of efforts in Congress over the years to exempt Israel from visa waiver rules; the most recent is currently stalled in the Senate.
Psaki’s remarks came after several weeks in which a number of lawmakers, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have criticized U.S. consular services for their rate of refusal of young Israelis.
The required maximum rate of refusal of entry for entering the U.S. visa waiver program is 3 percent; last year, Israel’s was at 9.7 percent, up from 5.4 percent the year before.
Israel’s rate of refusal for visas is low relative to many other countries, and rates of refusal for other U.S. allies also spiked last year, but there is evidence that Israel’s number is climbing because consular officials are wary of young Israeli travelers illegally peddling Dead Sea wares on U.S. trips.
In addition to Schumer, other lawmakers who have pressed the State Department to explain the spike in the rate of refusal include Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Reps. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
On Friday, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters she had spoken with Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, about the issue.
“These kids have completed their national service,” Lowey said, referring to the young Israeli travelers. “I’m concerned there aren’t many countries where they can travel safely” besides the United States.
Psaki in her briefing said the rate of refusal for young Israelis was not disproportionate.
“Over 90 percent of Israeli applicants for tourist visas to the United States are approved. For young Israelis, over 80 percent of visa applicants are approved for a visa,” she said.