In Order to Make it Back to the House of Representatives, this Immigration Bill had to Overcome an Unlikely Obstacle: The State Department – Ideaspace

Stamping a Passport

Jordan Heller | October 23, 2023

Read the original article from Ideaspace

Last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. House members reintroduced the Temporary Family Visitation Act (TFVA), a bill that would create a new nonimmigrant visa for foreign nationals who wish to visit family members in the U.S. As Ideaspace first reported in June of 2022, the bill would address a catch-22 in which foreign nationals with a legitimate reason to visit the U.S. — to connect with relatives who are U.S. citizens OR LAWFUL PERMANENT RESIDENTS — are routinely denied a tourist visa precisely because of those family ties.

Paris Etemadi Scott, an immigration attorney based in San Jose, California, told Ideaspace that the predicament is commonplace among the many Persian-speaking immigrants she serves. When an applicant for a tourist visa has family ties in the U.S., she explained, a U.S. consular officer will oftentimes reject the application on the basis that because of those family ties the applicant intends to immigrate. Congress itself detailed the issue in a 2014 CRS report.

“And for these families, when that tourist visa gets denied, they have no other option but to apply for that rigorous immigrant visa,” said Scott, explaining how the government is inadvertently driving up Green Card applications by individuals who have no intention to immigrate.  

The TFVA was originally introduced in the House of Representatives in May of 2021, and ultimately garnered 31 House Democrats and 18 House Republicans as co-sponsors — broad bipartisan support by any measure. But the bill floundered in the waning days of the 117th Congress after the House Judiciary Committee asked the State Department — the agency that would be tasked with issuing the new visas — for technical assistance. Among other concerns, State objected on the grounds that the new law would compromise the discretion of U.S. consular officers. Furthermore, State claimed there was no need for the bill as the tourist visas were meeting demand. Fearing the prospects for the bill would be dim without State’s support, TFVA authors did not feel confident advancing the bill out of the Judiciary Committee. 

It’s a situation that frustrated supporters of the TFVA, as unelected government officials were effectively obstructing the legislative process. 

“I’m not sure the State Department sees it the same way as our citizens do,” said Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat from southern California who reintroduced the TFVA with Republican congresswomen Stephanie Bice and María Salazar. “People can’t get the ability to visit family because they’re denied a visa. And parents should be able to attend their kids’ weddings, and children should be able to attend their parents’ funerals. And I would just say to the State Department, that’s not happening right now. And they may think that that’s fine, but I think a lot of us in a very bipartisan way don’t believe that that’s fine.

“And as far as [State’s] discretion,” continued Rep. Peters. “I guess that it’s the Congress that sets these priorities in conjunction with the president.”

John-Mark Kolb, the deputy chief of staff to Rep. Salazar, one of the two Republican congresswomen who reintroduced the TFVA with Rep. Peters, also disputed State’s position on the bill.

“Our constituents are pissed,” said Kolb, whose boss’s congressional district covers much of Miami-Dade County in South Florida, home to a large immigrant population with roots in Latin America. “We have one constituent with a family member in Bogotá, Colombia. Last time I checked, the wait to get an appointment just to see if you qualify for a visitor visa was over two and a half years. And then if the consular officer says, ‘No. Denied,’ then you’re saying you have to go through that process again? It’s absurd.”

Kolb went on to explain how the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem. With consular offices shut down due to pandemic protocols and no online processing put into place, the backlog grew to historic proportions.

“If [State] is going to tell people to work from home, you need to figure out a process to do this [online],” said Kolb, whose office introduced a separate bill to address the extended wait times. Kolb said that on this issue, too, State denied the existence of a problem. “And then when Congress has to step in and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to fix this,’ don’t tell me there’s not a problem.”   

Nevertheless, after the conclusion of the 117th Congress, TFVA authors set about addressing the State Department’s concerns. If for nothing else, so that if and when the bill reaches the White House, the president can push aside any remaining concerns of the State Department. 

Regarding the claim that tourist visas are meeting demand, lawmakers added an amendment to the FY24 State, Operations Appropriations Bill requiring the State Department to audit its rejections of nonimmigrant visa applications based on the presumption that those applicants intended to immigrate, which falls under Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Currently, records do not show the reason a consular officer invoked Section 214(b). TFVA supporters expect the audit will show that a significant number of those 214(b) rejections were based on applicants’ family ties to the U.S. In addition to neutralizing State’s claim that tourist visas are meeting demand, TFVA supporters believe that such an audit will help garner more congressional support for the bill. 

TFVA authors also added revisions to the bill itself, including language that would require petitioners to state that a family member wishing to visit the U.S. had not previously overstayed a visa, and, most importantly, language meant to retain the discretion of consular officers. If an applicant meets all requirements needed to avoid a  214(b) rejection, a consular officer will have other grounds for denial, like national security concerns.

Despite their frustrations with State, both Rep. Peters and Deputy Chief of Staff Kolb are ultimately happy that State had the opportunity to offer input on the latest iteration of the bill.    

“Agencies have the right to give their opinions on legislation when asked,” said Kolb. “And I know [that State] made technical changes to the bill to make it better. Writing bills can be hard sometimes, and there’s little lines that you can tweak and things that members of Congress don’t see on the front end, and that’s part of the legislative process. So they did provide valuable feedback on actually, if this bill becomes law, changing this word here would make it better.”

Said Rep. Peters: “At the end of the day, it’s the State Department that’s going to be implementing the law. And so it’s good to have them on board and ready to be able to successfully implement it, if those laws are going to make a difference.”

With the State Department’s concerns addressed and the bill reintroduced in the House, now the challenge for the TFVA is navigating the 118th Congress. The Republican conference’s failure to unite behind a speaker shows that the House remains in thrall to some of the GOP’s most extremist, anti-immigration elements, so getting the TFVA to a vote on the House floor would seem an uphill climb. But some in Congress, including Rep. Peters, see an impasse on comprehensive immigration reform as an opening for smaller, more niche pieces of legislation like the TFVA.

As Rep. Peters told me in a previous article about the prospects for immigration reform in the 118th Congress, many members often refrain from spending their political capital on narrow reforms like the TFVA, out of fear that such votes will weaken their leverage for passing bigger priorities like the DREAM Act. “But it’s been pretty clear over the last 10 years that comprehensive immigration reform is maybe an elephant that has to be eaten one bite at a time,” said the congressman. “So, for me, I’m willing to take smaller bites.”

As the thinking goes, with comprehensive immigration reform being a non-starter in the 118th Congress, there’s plenty of appetite for reforming the immigration system piecemeal. Furthermore, smaller bills like the TFVA do not generate the same political heat as comprehensive reforms. 

“A lot of this [small] stuff goes under the radar,” said Rep. Peters.

Beyond the smallness of the TFVA, Kolb believes the bill has qualities that are uniquely attractive to Republican House members. Namely, its focus on family, economics, and security.

“Republicans believe in family values,” said Kolb. “But we also have security to think about. And this bill helps bridge that gap and allow families to see their loved ones, but in a way that protects the integrity of our immigration system because these are temporary visas. And there are safeguards put in place to protect against visa overstays. 

“Of course on the economic side, the U.S. brings a lot of tourists every year,” said Kolb. “But we have room to grow on tourism and this [bill would help that growth].

According to the U.S. Travel Association, each overseas traveler visiting the U.S. spends on average $5,000 during the course of a stay. With more than 1 million people expected to take advantage of the TFVA annually, that’s more than $5 billion a year in additional travel spending, which economists say would lead to the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.

But above all, Kolb believes the TFVA is unique because it doesn’t fall along the traditional dividing lines of immigration.

“Immigration is a very political topic,” said Kolb. “But this one is a simple, targeted, effective fix to a real problem that constituents are experiencing. So I think [passage is] more down to member interest, down to districts who maybe have more American citizens with families abroad and/or live in areas where tourism is bigger. At the end of the day, this bill is just the right thing to do.”

Reps. Peters, Bice, Himes, Salazar Reintroduce Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill to Ease Temporary Visits to the U.S. – Press Release

Scott Peters Press Release

Representative Scott Peters Press Release | August 9, 2023

Read the original press release here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Representatives Scott Peters (D-CA-50), Stephanie Bice (R-OK-5), Jim Himes (D-CT-4), and María Elvira Salazar (R-FL-27) reintroduced the Temporary Family Visitation Act (TFVA) to ease obstacles for travelers looking to temporarily enter the United States to visit family. Under the current system, travelers to the United States must apply for a B-2 visitor visa and be assessed for potential intent to overstay their visit and remain in the United States permanently. Factors considered in determining intent to overstay include family connections or employment opportunities in the United States. This places applications at a higher risk of denial for those who wish to visit family solely for special occasions like graduations and the birth of a grandchild.

The TFVA would establish a new B-3 nonimmigrant visa category specifically for relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents that would allow stays of up to 90 days per calendar year. The application would require a U.S. family member to sign a letter of financial support for the applicant and would be prohibited from sponsoring an applicant if a previously sponsored relative overstayed their visa. The bill also requires applicants to purchase travel medical insurance for the duration of their stay. Finally, the TFVA would prohibit travelers entering the country on a B-3 visa from filing a change of status application while in the United States.

“Hundreds of constituents have asked my office to help them obtain a visitor visa for family members so they can attend meaningful events such as weddings, graduations, and childbirths. The bill we introduced today will make practical changes that make it easier for families to be together for these special occasions while strengthening our tourism-driven economy in San Diego,” said Rep. Peters. 

“Allowing family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to temporarily visit the United States to be reunited for a funeral, a wedding, or to meet a new grandchild, is the right thing to do. The current visa options significantly limit the amount of time an individual can stay in the country. This legislation allows for visitation up to 90 days and ensures that the U.S. family member is responsible for the financial and medical support of the visitor during their stay,” said Rep. Bice.  

“Life’s most meaningful moments are meant to be shared. This legislation would help families living across national borders come together for weddings, graduations, childbirths, and other special occasions without opening a door for visitors to overstay their VISAs. I am proud to join this bipartisan group of lawmakers in introducing this important legislation to help my constituents reunite with their loved ones,” said Rep. Himes.

“Thousands of my constituents in South Florida have families overseas they have not seen in years – including many that have come here as refugees from some of Latin America’s most brutal regimes.The Temporary Family Visitation Act finally gives those families a chance to reunite, boosts our economy, and ensures our visa laws are respected and enforced,” said Rep. Salazar.

U.S. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) plan to reintroduce the Senate companion to this bill soon.

Family members allowed to apply for B-3 nonimmigrant visas under the TFVA would include spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews.

“The TFVA advances the interests of Iranian Americans and all Americans who have loved ones who live abroad. This much-needed legislation will boost our local economies while also underscoring the United States’ commitment to family values. Thanks to the efforts of Representatives Peters, Bice, Himes, and Salazar, and Senators Paul and Blumenthal, the TFVA provides the opportunity for loved ones to finally come together for life’s most important moments. PAAIA encourages Congress to take swift action to pass this legislation,” said PAAIA Executive Director Neda Bolourchi.

Full text of the legislation here.

The Temporary Family Visitation Act (TFVA) Reintroduced with Bipartisan Support – PAAIA

TFVA was Reintroduced with Bipartisan Support

PAAIA Press Release | July 25, 2023

Contact: Shannon Kuehn  
Position: Director of Communications, PAAIA 
Email: [email protected] 
Phone: (202) 828-8370 

Washington, D.C. — The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) welcomes the reintroduction of the Temporary Family Visitation Act (TFVA) in the House. Led by Representatives Scott Peters (D-CA), Stephanie Bice (R-OK), Jim Himes (D-CT), and Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), this bipartisan legislation will establish a new visa category specifically designed to allow family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to temporarily visit the United States.  

“For years, PAAIA has spearheaded efforts to address the flaws in our nation’s visa system. Today’s reintroduction of the TFVA is a tremendous step in the right direction as we work with members of Congress to find solutions to the high visa denial rates faced by many in our community,” said PAAIA Executive Director Neda Bolourchi. “Establishing a new visa category for family members to temporarily visit the U.S. will benefit all Americans with loved ones abroad as well as boost our local economies through travel and tourism while simultaneously addressing Homeland Security issues.” 

Originally introduced in the 117th Congress, the TFVA previously had 48 cosponsors and has been endorsed by 21 organizations. The bill has gathered much support among ethnic communities and the tourism industry as it not only embodies the principle of family reunion but also has the potential to bring in billions of dollars and create millions of jobs. In fact, the U.S. Travel Association estimates that each overseas traveler spends approximately $4,300 when they visit the U.S. and in 2018, international travel spending directly supported 1.2 million U.S. jobs. 

Currently, family members wishing to visit their relatives in the U.S. must do so through B-2 visitor visas under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).  Unfortunately, B-2 visitor visa applicants face unnecessarily high denial rates due to the presumption that applicants with family in the U.S. intend to immigrate. In response, many end up applying for immigrant visas as the only path to visit their loved ones in the U.S. 

The TFVA addresses this issue by creating a new B-3 nonimmigrant visa category specifically allowing U.S. citizens and permanent residents to petition for their relatives to visit them in the United States.  The bill requires petitioners to sign a letter of financial support and mandates that applicants make specific and realistic plans and purchase travel medical insurance. To dissuade visa overstays, the TFVA prevents visitors from changing their visa status, limits the duration of the stay to 90 days, and prohibits petitioners from using the TFVA if they had a relative that previously overstayed their visa. 

“PAAIA takes immense pride in its leadership role in driving the introduction of TFVA, a transformative piece of legislation that stands to positively impact American families, businesses, and communities,” said Bolourchi. “PAAIA remains dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian American community and advocating for the unification of families through secure, enhanced visa policies.” 

PAAIA would like to thank Atoosa Vakili, Esq. and Ali Rahnama, Esq. for their counsel and assistance in helping draft TFVA.   


Making American visits and vacations possible for all travelers and families – San Jose Spotlight

Mineta San Jose International Airport

By Elham Sadri | June 21, 2022

Read the original article here.

When President Joe Biden repealed the Muslim travel ban in 2021, the Persian community rejoiced. Our family members abroad could finally visit loved ones in America. After years of separation, mothers, sons and grandparents looked forward to reuniting and hugging each other at long last.

But there was a catch. If you live in 155 countries, including my native Iran, you need a tourist visa to come to the U.S. These can take months to procure, and applications are denied at high rates, according to the government. For example, the denial rate for Iran was over 85% in 2020. That’s because the United States is incredibly picky about who it lets into the country—especially long term. So even if you simply want to come here for a few weeks or months, the U.S. government might claim you are trying to immigrate permanently.

This puts families in a terrible position. It means residents of dozens of countries are restricted from visiting their family members in America for weddings, birthdays and graduations. Events that come up on short notice—like funerals and births—are even harder to get to.

Thankfully, a piece of bipartisan legislation could help: the Temporary Family Visitation Act would establish a new nonimmigrant category—the B-3 visa—allowing U.S. citizens and green card holders to bring their families here for up to 90 days. It has accountability measures built in, requiring each applicant to sign an affidavit of financial support and purchase travel medical insurance for their loved one.

This bill recognizes how vital family connections are to a person’s overall wellbeing. It’s something we all understand, especially after pandemic quarantines.

Today, every American knows how painful it feels to be separated from family and friends who are sick or dying. We know the sadness of having to meet a new baby or attend a wedding through a screen. It’s why this new proposal was co-authored by a strong, bipartisan team: Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) and Representatives Scott Peters (D-CA-52), María Elvira Salazar (R-FL-27), Stephanie Bice (R-OK-05) and Jim Himes (D-CT-04). The Temporary Family Visitation Act isn’t an immigration bill, it’s a human bill.

There are other reasons this bill is a good idea. Currently, anyone who manages to get a green card through family could potentially apply for a single-entry tourist B1/B2 visa. Many people submit such an application so they can visit again in the future without the bureaucratic hassle of applying for another single-entry tourist visa. But there is currently a massive backlog for family-based visas. Millions are waiting “in line,” and some have been waiting as far back as 2001. Every temporary visitor who applies for permanent residency just because they can hurts those who truly need that status.

As a native-born Iranian and the founder of a San Jose-based immigration law firm, I see these situations every day. My clients who are facing serious medical issues can’t wait months or years for their family members to get visa approval. In fact, my own beloved parents in Tehran can’t come to visit without suffering through an elongated, difficult process.

It’s also personal for my family. When I finished law school 10 years ago, my parents couldn’t attend my graduation. Over the last decade, they’ve been able to visit me just once, in 2015. From start to finish, the tourist visa process took more than a year: filing the application, getting an interview, doing an administrative background check and finally getting to the U.S. It was so overwhelming and stressful that they didn’t want to repeat the experience.

My youngest sister, who came to the U.S. to get her PhD in biomedical engineering in 2017, hasn’t seen our parents in five years. That’s because the nonimmigrant visa for international students is single entry, like 90% of other Iranian PhD students in the U.S. She has not been able to travel back to Iran to visit family even during summer vacation, Christmas and the New Year when everyone spends time with their family. Both of our grandmothers passed away over the last couple of years, and she was not able to go to Iran to grieve with our family.

The situation is especially frustrating because citizens of 38 countries, largely across the European Union, can bypass the tourist visa process altogether. They’re eligible for a visa waiver, meaning they simply complete an online form and hop on an airplane.

Finally, the Temporary Family Visitation Act would benefit the U.S. tourism industry—something we also need in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that every overseas traveler who visits the United States spends about $4,200 over the course of an 18-night stay. The same organization estimated that, in 2019, international travel indirectly supported 1.2 million U.S. jobs and $33.7 billion in wages annually.

Tourism jobs and the 2.2 million additional jobs in other sectors such as construction, accounting and marketing would be positively affected. It’s good for the economy when visitors stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and visit our museums and other attractions.

The Temporary Family Visitation Act isn’t perfect; a visa that is good for six months instead of three would be more useful. But I’m still pleased lawmakers across the aisle recognize the importance of familial bonds—whether it’s a new mother who needs the support of her mom or a dying sibling who craves his brother’s smile. We are already separated by thousands of miles. Government bureaucracy shouldn’t make the distance worse.

Elham Sadri is the founder of Sadri Law, a law firm specializing in immigration issues in San Jose. She’s also chair of the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and co-founder of the Iranian Lawyers in North America group.