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U.S. now requires visas for travelers if they visited some Mideast states

U.S. announces plan for new visa rules for some Europeans and other travelers if they visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan

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The United States on Thursday tightened restrictions on European and other travelers who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan in the last five years.

However, it said the new rules may not apply to those in certain occupations who have traveled for business.

People who traveled to those countries such 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 new rules will be enforced even if the traveler is from a country in the U.S. visa waiver program -- the 40 nations seen as friends of America whose citizens can visit freely.

The move quickly angered Republican lawmakers who accused the administration of circumventing the will of Congress.

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.”

McCaul 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 said the move “needlessly compromises our national security and the safety of the American people.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, a top Democrat, 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 of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and are likely to commit jihadi violence from entering the United States.

The department said it had started to implement the new rules on Thursday, but there had already been reports of travelers falling afoul of the controversial regulations.

On Wednesday, the BBC reported that its journalist Rana Rahimpour, who has joint British and Iranian nationality, had been kept from boarding a U.S.-bound flight.

The State Department refused to comment on specific cases.

(With AP and AFP)