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Senate bill would exempt Israel from visa waiver requirements

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Senate version of a bill that would enhance the U.S.-Israel relationship exempts Israel from some requirements in order to allow it to join a visa waiver program.  

The bill, introduced in time for last week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference, mandates the inclusion of Israel in a program that allows citizens of designated countries to enter the United States without a prearranged visa.

The U.S. House of Representatives version of the bill also mandates such inclusion, but only once Israel meets the program’s requirements.

The Senate bill, which was introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), incorporates language from separate earlier bills by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) in the House that exempts Israel from a requirement that qualifying countries must have maintained a "nonimmigrant refusal" rate of less than 3 percent.

"Nonimmigrant refusals" refer to the rate that U.S. authorities turn down applicants for visas. Israel’s current rate is 5.4 percent.

The visa waiver list now includes 37 countries. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, South Korea, Lithuania were added in 2008; they all still have nonimmigrant visa refusal rates higher than Israel’s.

The other exemption is from a requirement in the law that participating countries provide "reciprocal privileges to citizens and nationals of the United States."

The Senate version would require Israel to make "every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens."

Israel has come under fire from Arab-American groups and some lawmakers in recent years for refusing entry to Americans of Arab descent, most recently refusing reentry to an English teacher at a Christian school in Ramallah who was returning from Christmas holidays in Jordan.

The inclusion of the visa waiver language in the Boxer-Blunt bill and the House version introduced by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) is significant because the bills, which would designate Israel a "major strategic ally," have significant backing and are more likely to pass than the earlier stand-alone visa waiver bills.

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