The Obama administration tightened restrictions on European and other travelers who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan in the last five years, even as it said the new rules may not apply to those in certain occupations who have traveled for business.
The move quickly angered Republican lawmakers who accused the administration of circumventing the will of Congress.
The administration said Thursday that people who traveled to those countries as journalists, for work with humanitarian agencies or on behalf of international organizations, regional organizations and provincial or local governments may still be eligible to visit the United States without first obtaining a visa. People who have traveled to Iran since July 14, 2015, or Iraq for "legitimate business-related purposes" can also apply to come to the United States under the visa waiver program.
The Homeland Security Department said waivers for some applicants to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, will be granted on a "case-by-case" basis. Those travelers who are denied visa-free travel can still apply for visa through a U.S. embassy in their home country.
Americans may also end up affected by the new rule, if Europe introduces reciprocal action against U.S. citizens.
"The Obama administration is blatantly breaking the law, a law the president himself signed," said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul. "This is not a difference of opinion over statutory interpretation, it is a clear contradiction of the law and the agreement we reached with the White House. President Obama is again putting his relationship with Iran's supreme leader over the security of Americans."
The Texas Republican said the exemptions announced by the administration were already rejected by Congress. He added that he and his colleagues "will respond and are reviewing our options."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said the move "needlessly compromises our national security and the safety of the American people."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday that the visa waiver program should be reformed, but "singling people out because of their national origin is fundamentally at odds with American values and invites discrimination against American citizens who are dual nationals."
Citizens of 38 countries, mostly in Europe, are generally allowed to travel to the United States without applying for a visa. But they still have to submit biographical information to ESTA.
New rules governing who can use the program approved by Congress in December are intended to block Europeans who have fought for the Islamic State group and are likely to commit jihadi violence from entering the United States.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said waivers and exemptions would be applied "on a case-by-case basis." But he had no answer for questions, such as who has Iranian citizenship. Iran's government claims many people of Iranian heritage as citizens even if they're unaware of the matter or don't consider themselves Iranian dual nationals. It's unclear how the U.S. will approach the issue.
The administration is not yet making changes to limits on visa-free travel for dual nationals.
The new limits only affect a minority of Europeans, but it has prompted great concern in countries whose citizens generally enjoy visa-free travel to the United States. And it has drawn Iranian charges that the U.S. is violating last summer's nuclear accord by penalizing legitimate business travel to the Islamic Republic.
Iraq and Syria were targeted specifically because the Islamic State group has seized significant territory in each country for its would-be caliphate. Iran and Sudan, like Syria, are designated by the U.S. as state sponsors of terrorism.
The debate over tightening visa restrictions for Europeans even emerged as an issue in the administration's seemingly unrelated effort to ensure Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon.
As part of last summer's nuclear deal, the U.S. promised to introduce no new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran as long as it remains in compliance. After a complaint by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Secretary of State John Kerry responded in a letter last month that the U.S. would live up to its part of the bargain and not "interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran." He cited the administration's waiver authority among possible options.
Toner said the change reflects the concern about "European fighters returning from Syria or Iraq or elsewhere and then trying to come to the United States via visa-free travel. It's a recognition that threat exists and an attempt to add another layer of security."
He described the visa requirement as an "inconvenience" that doesn't affect the vast majority of European travelers. For those affected, he said, "they simply have to go apply for a visa at their embassy or consulate," like millions of people do every year all over the world.
In an open letter last month, the European Union's 29 ambassadors in Washington warned against a "blanket restriction" on travel to certain countries that it said would unfairly target innocent businesspeople, journalists and aid workers, as well as dual nationals.
Introducing this approach toward the 13 million Europeans who visit the U.S. each year "could trigger legally-mandated reciprocal measures, and would do nothing to increase security while instead hurting economies on both sides of the Atlantic," the ambassadors wrote.