After journalists deported, bill would alter visa waiver program

Washington, July 23, 2004—A bill introduced this week in the U.S. House of Representatives would allow journalists from 27 “friendly” countries to enter the United States without a visa for up to 90 days—just as any other citizen of a “friendly” country may enter.

Proposed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the bill, known as HR 4823, cites the recent deportations of foreign journalists as evidence that changes are needed in the law. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has found evidence of nine such deportations, supports such changes.

“The recent incidents involving the detention and interrogation of visiting foreign journalists have done significant damage to this country’s reputation as a beacon of press freedom,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We see no reason why journalists should be treated any differently than any another visitor, and therefore support such reforms.”

In her letter to colleagues, Rep. Lofgren mentioned the case of Elana Lappin. A freelance British journalist on assignment for the London-based daily newspaper, The Guardian, she was denied entry to the United States at Los Angeles International Airport in May 2004. Lappin was interrogated, subjected to a body search, and held for 26 hours in what she described as “humiliating and physically very uncomfortable” conditions before U.S. authorities deported her to the United Kingdom.

At least nine journalists carrying passports from France, the United Kingdom and Australia have been denied entry into the United States by U.S. authorities since May 2003. All were detained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the Los Angeles airport. The journalists were handcuffed, interrogated, searched and detained for hours before being deported.

The three European nations are among the 27 “friendly” countries whose citizens are not required to obtain visas to enter the United States for up to 90 days under the Visa Waiver Program established in 1986 and amended in 1998. After the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was established, some U.S. authorities began requiring visas from all journalists, including those from the 27 “friendly” countries.

For the nearly 20 years before that, U.S. immigration authorities routinely allowed journalistsæas they would any other citizen of a “friendly” country—to enter the United States for up to 90 days without a special visa. Journalists staying longer have long been required to obtain special journalist visas under Section 101(15)(I) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, known as the “I-visa.”

U.S. officials told CPJ that they are enforcing laws already on the books. The Visa Waiver Program law of 1986 explicitly applies to non-immigrant visitors as defined by Section 101(a)(15)(B) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, and this section excludes individuals “coming for the purpose of study or of performing skilled or unskilled labor or as a representative of foreign press, radio, film, or other foreign information media coming to engage in such vocation.”

In May 2004, after The Guardian’s Lappin was detained, the U.S. Customs & Border Protection bureau of the Department of Homeland Security announced that U.S. port officials would grant a “one-time entrance waiver” to “foreign journalists who arrive in the United States without the required I-visa.”