The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced yesterday it has begun to implement restrictions to the visa waiver program Congress passed last month as part of the budget deal.

The restrictions prevent nationals of 38 countries who have traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan since March 1, 2011, or those who hold citizenship from those countries, from coming to the United States under the program. The visa waiver program offers expedited electronic processing and short-term visa-free travel to tourists and business travelers.

Instead, dual nationals and travelers who have spent time in the listed countries will be required to go through the full vetting of the regular visa process, which includes an in-person interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

The administration will issue waivers to the new procedures on a case-by-case basis to individuals who have traveled to the countries in question as journalists, aid workers, for military service or as a government or international organization representative. People who have traveled to Iran or Iraq for “legitimate business-related purposes” may also be eligible for a waiver.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the new rules “reflected a compromise” between the administration and Congress, and “there are a lot of complexities” inherent in adjusting the nation’s visa waiver process.

In implementing the legislative deal the two sides struck last month, he said, the administration sought to balance two competing interests: national security and U.S. economic activity.

“So we want to make sure that we are doing everything that is necessary to keep the country safe. That is the top priority,” Earnest said. “But we also don’t want to unnecessarily disadvantage American businesses that are trying to do business overseas, because ultimately, that’s good for our economy and it’s good for creating jobs here in the United States.”

But dual nationals do not yet appear to be eligible for waivers under the new rule, a decision that is likely to upset some lawmakers.

Last month, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and other senators signed onto various letters urging congressional leaders to reconsider the specifics of the visa waiver language because of concerns it unfairly excluded dual nationals, even if they have never traveled to the region. They warned the measure was would likely inspire reciprocal moves from the affected countries.

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Despite calls to reexamine the program, the more hard-line House language is what ended up in the final budget deal.