Proposed restrictions on travel to Central America approved by the House of Representatives have sparked angry denunciations from civil liberties groups and opponents of United States policy in Nicaragua. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Robert Walker (R) of Pennsylvania, would prohibit US citizens from traveling to Central America ``to perform services or provide other assistance to the military operations'' of the Nicaraguan government or to ``any group which the President has designated as a communist guerrilla group.''
On June 23 the House approved Representative Walker's legislation, which was offered as an amendment to the overall State Department-budget authorization bill, by a vote of 213 to 201.
Ironically, the State Department opposes the legislation. But Walker claims that his measure is not a travel ban but simply a symbolic statement against communism.
In the debate before the House vote on his amendment, Walker said that ``if one travels to Central America for humanitarian, informational, or vacation travel, that is fully permitted'' under his legislation.
But Stacy Debroff of the American Civil Liberties Union charges that the amendment could have ``a chilling effect on the fundamental rights of US citizens to travel to foreign countries.''
Officials of the Witness for Peace organization, an anticontra group that has sent more than 2,300 American volunteers to Nicaragua's war zones since late 1983, caution that Walker's measure could represent the first step toward more-restrictive laws in the future.
The vagueness of the amendment's prohibition on ``services or ... other assistance'' to Sandinista military efforts could pose legal problems for many Americans wishing to travel to Nicaragua, admits John Burnett, Walker's press aide.
Witness for Peace, by trying to deter attacks by the US-funded contra rebels, ``very well may'' violate the Walker legislation, he says.
Burnett acknowledges that Benjamin Linder, a young American engineer who was killed in an April 28 contra attack while working on a rural electrification project in Nicaragua, ``could have gotten in trouble'' under the terms of the bill.
Mr. Linder was reportedly carrying a weapon for self-defense and was accompanied by Sandinista militiamen when he was killed, Burnett explains.
But Burnett stresses that Walker left out any enforcement mechanism from his bill, because his main interest was to ``put Congress on record saying that communism in Central America threatens the United States, and that Americans who go down to help communist revolutions are participating in an operation that threatens'' the US.
There is no similar travel restriction in the Senate version of the State Department funding legislation, Burnett says. When a House-Senate conference committee convenes to work out a final version of the State Deparment bill, Walker will ask conservative senators to fight for retention of his amendment, Burnett says.
The State Department opposes Walker's legislation because it would be ``virtually impossible to implement or enforce,'' says one department official. He also remarks that the administration would rather avoid what he believes would be a needless confrontation with groups opposed to the contra war.