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Some Israelis desperate to flee to the United States in the wake of the Hamas terror attack are struggling to get visas because a new system to facilitate easy visa-free travel between the U.S. and Israel is not scheduled to go into effect until Nov. 30.
The new visa waiver status for Israel was announced by the Department of Homeland Security in late September, and officials tell NBC News they don’t plan to speed up the launch of the program.
Adi Rosenbaum, 35, spoke from the Tel Aviv apartment she shares with her husband and her two young daughters.
They want to go to Manhattan to stay with her sister, but her 1-year-old doesn’t have a U.S visa.
Her husband went to the U.S. Embassy branch office in Tel Aviv this week to apply for a visa for the baby, but said it was closed. She said the family has called and emailed without success.
Rosenbaum broke down in tears, confused by the U.S. government’s failure to move up the start date for the visa waiver program.
“If there is anyway the U.S. government can help Jewish people so we won’t get slaughtered, please help,” she said. “We are just lost. We have no idea how to make it happen.”
“The videos won’t leave my mind. I don’t want my kids to see my crying.”
“I hope things don’t escalate,” she said. “We are just trying to make it here until the end of November. We are trying to be strong to my girls. We are praying for this to end.”
A State Department spokesperson said that the embassy branches in Israel are prioritizing helping U.S. citizens: “At this time, visa processing at the U.S. Embassy in Israel has been suspended and visa appointments have been cancelled. Visa applicants should monitor the U.S. Embassy website for updates.”
Visas require in-person appointments. The embassy website states, “All in-person Passport Unit appointments are by online appointment only. No consular appointments are made by phone or email. No walk-ins are permitted.”
One DHS official told NBC News that visa-free travel for Israeli citizens and nationals will not begin immediately “due to operational steps that must be taken prior to the commencement of travel.”
Said the official, “We expect that starting no later than November 30, 2023, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) will be updated to allow Israelis to apply to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a U.S. visa.”
Another DHS official said the administration has no plans at this time to open other expeditious pathways for Israelis seeking to flee to the U.S. such as Special Immigrant Visas and humanitarian parole, both of which were recently made available to people escaping violence in Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Forty other countries have a reciprocal visa waiver program agreement with the U.S., which means red tape for travelers is limited. Countries with agreements include Australia, Japan and nearly every nation in Europe.
The visa waiver program is a reciprocal arrangement, in which a citizen of one country is granted a visa waiver when traveling to the other country.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides described how a new waiver program would work in a January Twitter post, saying that once the program is implemented Israelis would be able to travel to the United States with no visa. He added, “Any American regardless of their national origin, religion or ethnicity will be able to travel to Israel, for an example Arab-Americans including Palestinian- Americans will be able to get on a plane and fly directly to Ben Gurion airport [in Tel Aviv] and go see your aunt in Bethlehem.”
Yotam Lior, 40, and his wife, Rachel Forbes, decided that they could not wait for visa approval to get to the United States with their two children. The family chose to flee to Cyprus amid warnings from the Israeli government that they needed to conserve food and water in the coming weeks.
Lior spoke to NBC News from the Tel Aviv airport, where he was juggling his two young children as he waited for his Cyprus flight. “The U.S. is sending battleships and aircraft carriers to Israel, but Israeli citizens still have to go through this tedious process. If you ask me it doesn’t benefit anyone.”
Forbes told NBC News she feels they had no choice but to leave because they fear they’re in danger, “It’s a real war and Israel is in serious risk,” she said. “We are attacked from north to south with an enemy that has nothing to lose.”
In early September, 15 Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken opposing the addition of Israel to the visa waiver program, citing Israel’s request for a special separate visa category for residents of the West Bank or Gaza. Residents of Gaza are not included at all, according to the letter.
“We do know that it would be a violation of law to rush to admit a country that does not meet a key requirement of the program in one year simply because it may not be able to comply with a different requirement the following year,” the senators wrote.
Israel has proposed that it could implement a new system that included residents of the West Bank as of May 2024.
Laura Strickler is a senior investigative producer and reporter for NBC News. She is based in Washington.
Simone Weichselbaum is a national investigative reporter for NBC News, focusing on local and federal law enforcement issues. She previously was a police reporter for The Marshall Project, the New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Daily News. She holds a graduate degree in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania.
Julia Ainsley is homeland security correspondent for NBC News and covers the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Abigail Williams is a producer and reporter for NBC News covering the State Department.
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