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Post-army travelers or Dead Sea scammers? Congress and State Dept. at odds over Israeli visas

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivers remarks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's Policy Conference on March 3, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivers remarks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference on March 3, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – The battle between members of Congress and the State Department over tourist visas for Israelis features two competing archetypes of the young Israeli traveler.

The lawmakers paint a picture of a world traveler, matured by service to country, who deserves a break from the stresses of the Middle East. U.S. consular officials, meanwhile, have warned of lawbreakers hawking dubious Dead Sea beauty products in malls and at rest stops.

The debate surfaced publicly with a March 6 letter from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to Secretary of State John Kerry and James Ragsdale, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In his letter, Schumer expressed concern about a recent spike in the proportion of Israelis being denied visas to visit the United States.

Prior to Schumer sending his letter, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had been raising the issue of visa denials on Capitol Hill.

“We are concerned about the issues that have been raised about the treatment of visas, and we will be working with the administration and Congress to address them,” Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC’s spokesman, told JTA.

In addition, AIPAC has been backing a broader legislative effort to get Israel into the U.S. visa waiver program, which allows travelers from designated countries to visit the United States without a visa.

One of the principal obstacles to joining the visa waiver program has been Israel’s inability to consistently score below 3 percent on the visa refusals rate, a requirement for countries seeking to join the program. An AIPAC-backed bill on enhancing the Israel-U.S. relationship that was introduced a year ago is stalled in the Senate in part because it would waive the 3 percent requirement. The corresponding bill in the House would not waive the requirement and this month passed overwhelmingly.

For years, Israel had hovered around the 6 percent mark; in 2012, its rate of refusal was at 5.4 percent. In 2013, it rose to 9.7 percent.

Israel was not the only country to see such a spike — Hungary soared from 17 percent to 31.6 percent and South Korea shot up from 13 percent to 18.1 percent — but Schumer in his letter blamed State Department preconceptions about young Israeli travelers.

“After receiving inquiries from several constituents, my staff contacted your legislative affairs staff and learned that our consulates apparently have a policy to presumptively deny all tourist visa applications for young Israeli nationals who wish to visit the United States during the period in between the completion of their military service and the resumption of their university education,” Schumer wrote.

“When my staff asked your staff why this arbitrary policy toward Israel was in place, we were informed that the State Department is concerned that these young Israeli nationals were going to violate the terms of their visas by, for example, selling Dead Sea cosmetics at shopping malls across the United States.”

U.S. officials say consular officials are simply abiding by the law, which mandates that applicants for tourist visas are presumed to be potential violators of visa terms until they can prove otherwise.

“When any individual makes a U.S. visa application anywhere in the world, a consular officer reviews the facts of the case and makes a determination of eligibility based on U.S. law,” Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a State Department official, told The Hill newspaper on March 12.

The State Department did not reply to multiple JTA requests for comment.

Kerry, asked about the issue at a March 13 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, denied there was a policy to keep out the young Israelis.

“Last year over 100,000 visas of all ages were issued, 20,000 were issued to Israelis aged 21 to 30 in each of the last fiscal years,” Kerry said, replying to a query from Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.). “Issuance rate is about 83 percent, which is not different from other folks in other places.”

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) told JTA in an interview that that those numbers were not representative. Kerry was referring to overall visitor visas for Israelis aged 21-30, said Meng, who wants more narrow data assessing how many Israelis between 21 and 27 were specifically denied tourist visas.

“The fact that something like this could be happening warrants further investigation,” she said.

In addition to Deutch, Meng and Schumer, lawmakers pressing the administration to ease up on denials include Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

In a letter Meng sent to Kerry on Monday asking for the more detailed information, she wrote that many of the young Israeli applicants between military service and university studies deserve the break they are seeking through an American vacation.

“Such traveling is a time-honored and venerable tradition in Israel,” she said. “This is the Israeli way of saying ‘Thank you for your service.’ While Israeli society asks its young adults to fight in the world’s most dangerous places, it also affords them the opportunity to heal from the wounds of war and become citizens of the world.”

Schumer said the policy was denying the United States tourist dollars.

“Let’s punish the wrongdoers instead of making it impossible for young Israelis to come see our beautiful sites, eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, and support all the jobs related to those activities,” he said in a statement. “It makes no sense to deny tourist visas to all young Israelis simply because of the actions of a few.”

American diplomats and consular officials have markedly different views of the typical young Israeli traveler. A lengthy 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv that was released by WikiLeaks said it was “culturally acceptable for post-army Israelis to work illegally in the United States; key parts of the Dead Sea industry have been able to base a large part of their business models upon the employment of illegal workers.”

The phenomenon has become the main focus of the embassy’s fraud detection unit, the cable says, adding that officials suspect the numbers of Israelis illegally peddling the products in the United States are in the thousands. The cable describes reports of organized crime ties to the industry, saying that some of those working illegally have reported abuse, threats and extortion while on the job in the United States. Some of the products, the cable alleges, are not from the Dead Sea at all but likely originate in China or Central America.

The cable writer acknowledges that the breadth of the problem is inhibiting legitimate travel by post-army Israelis as well as Israel’s quest to join the visa waiver program.

“Aside from the criminal aspects of this fraud, a key implication is the increased visa revocation/refusal and denial of entry rates for post-army Israelis, which among other things, complicate Israel’s high-profile desire to join the Visa Waiver Program,” the cable said.

The embassy runs PR campaigns discouraging Israelis from misusing tourist visas to work illegally. A video on its website titled “The Price is Too High” and posted in 2011 outlines consequences for traveling under false pretenses, including being banned from the United States from between five years to life.

Many of the online commenters on the video were sympathetic to the embassy’s pitch.

“Good for the embassy,” Sehara97 wrote in Hebrew. “Because of a band of money-chasing ne’er-do-wells, every Israeli has to suffer a grueling visa application process.”

One woman, a doctoral student in biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told JTA that she and others who encountered obstacles in applying for visas understand that much of the blame lies with the Dead Sea scammers.

“Those are the people giving all of us a hard time,” said the student, who asked not to be named in order not to jeopardize future travel to the United States. “We hate them as well. Because of those people all younger Israelis are getting a hard time.”

The student said she had obtained a visa to attend an academic conference in the United States only at the last minute. Others among her colleagues were not so fortunate, she said, adding that she believed increasing numbers of students in the sciences were choosing to attend seminars and conferences in Europe and not in the United States.

Among the inhibiting factors, the student said, were the nonrefundable $160 fee for a visa application and a lengthy application process for Israelis in the sciences.

The embassy website says that Israelis “who work or study scientific and technical fields” must detail their work and study background, list other countries visited over the past 10 years and provide a detailed itinerary. It warns that approval will take longer. It does not explain why the extra materials are needed.

“They have something against science people. We are considered a threat to the U.S.,” the student said, adding that the experience has dissuaded her from further travel to the United States.

“I don’t want to do this again and again, year after year,” she said.