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.
The drive to gain Israel’s entry into this program has been joined in recent months by key legislators, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Senator Lindsey Graham of Georgia. In the House, its advocates include Meng, along with Reps. Nita Lowey, Ted Deutch, Brad Schneider, Eliot Engel and Anna Eshoo. Israel’s inclusion in the waiver program has been strongly supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and has already passed the House. A similar measure is awaiting action in the Senate, though differences remain over the issue of reciprocity from Israel.
But despite much goodwill shown by all sides, the key problem of widespread visa fraud among young Israelis entering America also has yet to be resolved.
A leaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, dated January 25, 2010, and published by WikiLeaks, demonstrates just how concerned America’s authorities are about the phenomenon. Many of the young Israelis who enter fraudulently, the cable reports, work for vendors selling Dead Sea cosmetic products in shopping malls across the country. “Locksmiths also are of concern,” wrote Wendy Vincent, the American consular official in Tel Aviv who composed the cable. Others overstaying their visas and working illegally sell toys, hair products and seasonal gifts, she said.
The violators, according to the cable, receive ample help from the American side. Vincent speaks about a “well-organized” effort by employers in America who are “known to advise applicants to create a fake reason for the trip” and to lie about their intentions upon entry.
Vincent details large-scale fraud that includes not just visa overstays, but also tax evasion and widespread disregard of U.S. labor laws. “The toughest aspect,” the consular officer wrote, “is not determining whether the applicant will return, but whether she or he will abide by their visa’s terms.” The measures taken, the cable asserts, “have [not] proven effective thus far.”
According to the communiqué, most visa violators are between the ages of 21 and 24 and fresh out of their compulsory military service.
The embassy cable outlines an intense intelligence gathering effort to expose the fraud methods by monitoring websites and by examining information received from Israelis who have been caught and deported.
“A key part of this fraud problem,” Vincent wrote, adopting an anthropological tone, is that “this practice is culturally acceptable” for Israelis, making it difficult to weed out would-be visa violators.
In response, the cable noted, consular officials have been limiting visas for young Israelis to specific dates and purposes, and rejecting those who are not enrolled in university or who are not tied to permanent jobs in Israel. But the young visa applicants “prove to be clever and adaptable,” the cable observed.
“Interview officers,” the cable from Tel Aviv reported, have been “trying not to discriminate against a broad age-group category,” but recently the widely perceived notion in Israel has been that chances of Israelis entering the United States soon after their military service are slim.
Having almost a third of young Israelis denied visas also prohibits Israel from entering the Visa Waiver Program, which requires a low refusal rate as a threshold condition.
But this is not the only obstacle facing those who wish to allow Israeli tourists free entry into America.
The State Department and key lawmakers, including California Senator Barbara Boxer, have stressed their insistence on the Visa Waiver Program’s reciprocity requirement. That must mean free entry for Muslim and Arab Americans into Israel without discriminatory treatment based on their backgrounds, they say.
According to an April 22 report in Israel’s daily Haaretz, the government in Jerusalem has informed Washington that it would lift restrictions on Arab Americans once Israel is entered into the Visa Waiver Program.
The intelligence community has also voiced resistance to allowing Israelis into the United States without visas. According to a recent report in the online publication Roll Call, officials from the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among others, warned lawmakers in a recent classified hearing of Israeli spies entering the United States more freely and with less monitoring if visa requirements are lifted.
Initial findings from the State Department’s examination of denials of visas for Israelis are expected this summer. But with so many hurdles still ahead, it will be a long wait before policy changes.
“As a first step, this is very satisfactory,” Meng said, referring to the State Department letter. The main achievement so far, she said, has been the administration’s acknowledgement that the problem exists.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.