Trump adds six new countries to travel ban list

Three years after President Trump first signed an executive order barring entry to the U.S. for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, he’s adding six new countries to the so-called travel ban list. 

Speaking to reporters on background Friday afternoon, officials with the departments of State and Homeland Security confirmed that Trump was signing a proclamation extending the list of countries subject to the travel ban to include Myanmar (which officials referred to by its former name of Burma), Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania. Existing restrictions imposed against Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen under a third iteration of the original travel ban and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018 will also remain in place, the officials said. 

Among the six countries added, Sudan and Kyrgystan are majority Muslim, with Christianity and Islam more closely split as the main religions in Tanzania and Nigeria. Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist and its government has been accused of encouraging an ethnic cleansing campaign against its Muslim minority, the Rohingya — making the country one of the world’s biggest drivers of refugees in recent years. 

Protestors hold signs in support of ending a ban on travel to the United States for citizens of several majority-Muslim countries. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

A senior DHS official, who declined to be named, told reporters Friday that the decision to add these specific countries to the travel ban list was based on their “unwillingness or inability” to meet certain enhanced security and information-sharing standards established by the Trump administration to address potential national security and public safety threats from foreign nationals. Among the “deficiencies” the DHS says it identified within these country’s vetting capabilities include a lack of an electronic passport program, failure to provide sufficient information on lost or stolen passports, and other issues identifying travelers who may pose a risk to national security. 

The new restrictions imposed on the six countries added Friday — which will take effect on Feb. 22 — are less stringent from those applied to the other countries already on the list. Those will remain in effect. 

The restrictions will apply specifically to those seeking immigration visas from Burma,  Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria. For Sudan and Tanzania, the restrictions will only impact diversity visa applicants. The ban will not apply to refugees from these countries, a State Department official confirmed. They estimated that the regulations could potentially affect around 12,400 applicants annually, before applying waivers and other exceptions. 

“It’s focused on people who want to reside in the U.S., not people who want to visit,” the DHS official said. 

President Trump signs a travel ban executive order at the Pentagon as Vice President Mike Pence, left, and former Defense Secretary James Mattis look on, Jan. 27, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Asked to explain why the restrictions would not be applied to visitors, in light of the stated objective of preventing terrorists and other public safety threats from entering the country, the DHS official said,  "because we have higher confidence that these six countries will be able to make improvements … in a reasonable period of time, we did not feel [it was] proportionate to impose restrictions on all immigrant and non-immigrant visas.”

The intent, he said, was to “prioritize categories that could have the greatest long-term challenge on removal proceedings and the like.” DHS experience, the official said, was that it is much harder to deport a visa holder already in the country than to deny entry in the first place. The agency decided to “focus energy on populations that may present the greatest challenge.”

The focus on blocking immigration from these six countries seems to raise new questions about the administration’s national security justifications for earlier versions of the ban. 

“Looking at all of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during the 1975-2017 period, only .56 percent were committed by a terrorist who entered on a green card,” said Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. Nowrasteh published a comprehensive risk analysis in May that examined the immigration status and nationality of every foreign-born terrorist who’d been convicted of planning, attempting or carrying out attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2017. 

Based on his report, Nowrasteh told Yahoo News that during that 42-year period, a combined 11 people from the six new travel ban countries were involved in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that resulted in a total of six deaths. Of those 11 terrorists, only one entered the country with a green card. 

“The most this ban would have prevented is a single murder,” said Nowrasteh.

The Cato Institute report expanded on an earlier analysis published by Nowrasteh in January 2017, as Trump prepared to sign his executive order on“Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which mandated a temporary halt on travel to the U.S. for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia. Despite the stated objective of the executive order, which quickly became better known as the “Muslim ban,” Nowrasteh similarly found that “the countries that Trump chose to temporarily ban are not serious terrorism risks.”

Demonstrators listen to speakers during a rally outside the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday. (Steve Helber/AP)

Trump signed the order on Jan. 27, 2017, prompting massive protests, chaos and confusion, as immigrants from the affected countries, including some green card holders, were unexpectedly detained at airports across the U.S. and, in some cases, removed from the country. The Department of Homeland Security later reported that, within the first 72 hours after the order went into effect, 721 people with valid visas were prevented from boarding U.S.-bound flights. 

The original Muslim ban was revised multiple times amid a lengthy legal battle. Immigration advocacy and civil rights organizations won nationwide injunctions to temporarily block the government from enforcing the order from federal judges in New York and Washington state, as well as Maryland and Hawaii. In June 2018 the third and current version of the ban was upheld by the Supreme Court, which found it had “a legitimate grounding in national security concerns.”

The latest expansion of the travel ban, which comes just days after the third anniversary of the original executive order, was widely condemned by immigrant rights advocates as well as some Democratic lawmakers, such as Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.

In a statement, Thompson described Friday’s announcement as “a brazen step to begin dismantling the Diversity Visa program” which, he said, “has been a longstanding political priority for the President and is consistent with what has been widely reported about his thoughts on immigration from countries with predominantly black and brown populations.”

“The fact that he has couched this political decision in homeland or national security terms is grotesque,”  Thompson stated. “Both the timing and the focus of these new restrictions represent a shameful political maneuver that hurts thousands of people and families.”

In a joint statement, Rep. Jerry Nadler and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, both impeachment managers in Trump’s Senate trial, accused Trump of improperly acting beyond the limited legal authority granted to presidents under federal immigration law “to protect the national interest by excluding small, well-defined groups of individuals from entering the country.” 

Lofgren and Nadler noted that the House Judiciary will soon consider proposed legislation to “repeal the Muslim ban, strengthen provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act by prohibiting discrimination based on religion, and ensure that executive authority to prohibit the entry of non-citizens can no longer be abused in this manner.” 

Even after the Supreme Court ruling, civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have continued to fight the travel ban, making their latest legal arguments before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia earlier this week.  

“The ban should be ended, not expanded,” Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement following the announcement Friday. “President Trump is doubling down on his signature anti-Muslim policy — and using the ban as a way to put even more of his prejudices into practice by excluding more communities of color.” 

Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said, “Although the Supreme Court has previously upheld the president’s authority to issue these bans, denying people entry to the United States based solely on where they are from is bad policy and is contrary to the principles underlying our legal system. AILA remains deeply troubled by this ban’s intent and impact.”

Correction: This article previously stated that Myanmar is predominantly Hindu. It has been corrected to reflect that the country is predominantly Buddhist.

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