Your neighborhood shopping mall might not be the most obvious place to find one of the latest controversies bedeviling relations between the United States and Israel.
But even as advocates for Israel and some members of Congress cheered a recent State Department promise to review strict entry requirements by the United States for young Israelis, a brief visit to a mall in suburban Maryland highlighted the problem that will make this review so hard: the reality of widespread visa fraud committed by young Israeli adults.
It’s a long-standing phenomenon, and one that continues to threaten a high-priority drive by Israel and its advocates in Washington to liberalize U.S. entry requirements for Israeli tourists.
At the mall, just 10 miles from the nation’s capital, two young Israelis were trying to convince passersby to buy a hair-straightening device they were selling from a pop-up kiosk. “That’s how everyone works here,” one of them said, trying to explain his lack of a work visa. “No one cares.”
The young man’s partner, after concluding an unsuccessful sales pitch with a customer, joined in. “We’re not bothering anyone,” he explained. “We work for a while and then go back home.”
On April 17, the State Department sent out a letter to several members of Congress, announcing a plan to help Israel enter a program that would lift visa requirements for tourists altogether. But even as that letter went out, a popular Hebrew Internet forum was hosting numerous exchanges between Israelis seeking to enter the United States and work illegally and those offering them advice on how to do so.
A young man named Moshe asked for help on how to convince an American consular officer that he has a job in Israel even though he does not, so that the officer would grant him a visa to enter the United States, where he could work illegally. Another, named Adi, asked at which port of entry do “they make the least trouble” at the immigration checkpoint. She heard from a user named Noa that Los Angeles and New York are the best, but “Atlanta is not recommended.” In February, an Israeli going by the name of Shari simply posted on the forum: “I’m looking to get married for papers.”
Cases such as these are well known to consular officers at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, who are charged with reviewing Israelis’ visa requests. They estimate that thousands of young Israelis have violated their visa terms and have worked illegally in the United States. Their actions have, in turn, brought about extra scrutiny and extreme limitations on visa opportunities for all young Israelis wishing to visit America.
“If there is a problem, we should find a way of solving it instead of denying visas for an entire group age,” Rep. Grace Meng of New York said in an interview. Meng, a Democrat, is one of several lawmakers who have recently taken on this issue. Together, these legislators have been pressing the State Department to end its practice of applying extra scrutiny to young Israelis seeking tourist visas. “Innocent people should not be punished because of a few who break the law,” Meng said.
Lately the pro-Israel lobby has made it a top priority to get this strict treatment lifted and to include Israel on the exclusive list of countries whose citizens do not need tourist visas. In response, Congress has stepped up its actions on the issue, increasing pressure on the administration to change its policy. Israel advocates decry the current situation as discriminatory toward citizens of a close American ally.
At the same time, critics of any move to lift the current strict scrutiny for young Israelis protest that Israel must first cease a discriminatory policy of its own. Israeli immigration officials, they complain, routinely subject Muslim Americans and Arab Americans seeking to visit Israel to lengthy questioning when they arrive. And in some cases they deny them entry altogether, based on their ethnic or religious background.
Despite this unresolved issue, supporters of Israel’s admission to the Visa Waiver Program, under which Israeli citizens could enter the United States for up to three months without a visa, counted the April 17 letter from Assistant Secretary of State Julia Frifield as their first real success. Frifield’s letter acknowledged that the visa denial rate for Israelis between the ages of 21 and 26 has doubled in 2013 and now reaches 32%, creating the impression that young Israelis are not welcome in the United States.
“Clearly that is not the case,” Frifield wrote. “Israel is one of our closest friends and allies.” The State Department promised to take steps to examine and reduce the visa denial rates for young Israelis and to set up a joint working group aimed at getting Israel into the VWP.