WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s expansion of the travel ban to six additional countries has nothing to do with security reasons as the administration claimed and is rather built on Islamophobia and xenophobia, leaders of several civil rights groups said.
On Friday, Trump signed a proclamation that prevents citizens of Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, and Nigeria from applying for immigrant visas that can lead to their permanent residency in the United States.
Citizens of Sudan and Tanzania will also no longer be able to participate in the diversity visa lottery, which every year randomly grants green cards to up to 55,000 people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. In past years, many of the recipients came from African countries.
According to Grace Meng, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, the new travel restrictions are the latest move of the president’s “xenophobic approach to communicate that immigrants are bringing problems” and that “keeping them out protects American interests.”
The original ban, one of Trump’s signature policies, was introduced in January 2017 when the administration was only days old, blocking visas for five Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen) as well as for Venezuela and North Korea. While most North Koreans are barred from entering the U.S., the Venezuelan ban mostly affects government officials and their family members, a relatively small number.
“[The ban] started as a Muslim ban at its core, and it remains a Muslim ban,” said Nihad Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest non-profit Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S. “Adding one or two non-Muslim countries is just a window dressing.”
Trump’s initial executive order prompted nationwide protests at several large airports and immediately met court challenges. After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against it, it landed before the Supreme Court. In June 2018, the court’s conservatives upheld a revised version of the ban with a 5-to-4 vote. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts affirmed that Trump has the broad authority to restrict immigration when it threatens U.S. national security.
However, the administration “has consistently used national security to masquerade xenophobia,” said Denise Bell, a researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA.
The Trump administration said the new policy was designed to tighten security for countries that do not comply with U.S. security and information-sharing standards.
During a call with reporters, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf mentioned issues that range from sub-par passport technology to a failure to sufficiently exchange information on terrorism suspects and criminals.
But according to many civil rights groups, it is unclear how any of the countries added to the list pose a direct threat to the U.S.
The security justifications provided by the administration are “hogwash” and the timing of the announcement of the new restrictions — only a few days after the three-year anniversary of the original ban — proves it, according to Scott Simpson, public advocacy director at the nonprofit group Muslim Advocates.
“There is no imminent security threat that waits for a commemorative anniversary to announce,” Simpson said. The ban is “the most overt policy expression” of the “bigotry” upon which Trump’s presidency is built.
Foreigners seeking to obtain a visa for the U.S. already have to go through “a pretty significant process of security checks,” which makes “troubling to think that such a broad ban is the right approach to any sort of [security] concerns [the U.S.] might have,” Meng explained.
Civil rights groups have also nicknamed the regulation the “African ban,” criticizing the administration for specifically targeting African countries and not imposing restrictions on other, larger nations that seem to be a more significant threat to the U.S.
“The reasons keep changing about why it is that the Trump administration wants to keep black and brown people out — and that’s because there is no honest reason, except for racism and xenophobia,” said Patrice S. Lawrence, co-director of UndocuBlack Network, a multigenerational network of currently and formerly undocumented black people.
“This country has a real problem with blackness and any proximity to it,” she added. “The ban is a more explicit version of the racism and xenophobia that this administration has propelled onto our communities since day one.”
Unlike the five original countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen), travel restrictions for the newly added countries do not affect nonimmigrant-visas, such as temporary visas for tourists, businesspeople, students, and workers who enter the U.S. on H-1B visas, which are temporary but can lead to permanent residency.
Immigrants already in the U.S. or whose visas have already been approved will be exempt from the ban. Pending visa requests — some of which have been under examination for years — will be barred.
All applicants will be able to apply for a waiver, a process already in place under Trump’s existing ban. However, a federal lawsuit challenging the administration says the waiver process is opaque and difficult to navigate.
The new restrictions are set to take effect on Feb. 21.
The affected countries
About 12,000 people a year will be affected by the ban, according to an estimation by the Department of Homeland Security. Many of these people attempt to escape countries ridden with conflicts — sometimes in the form of terrorism — and human rights violations.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in a statement that the ban is devastating for “thousands of men, women and children whose only beacon of hope is the safety and prosperity that America can offer.”
Some of the newly added countries have recently increased their cooperation with the U.S. and it remains unclear whether they still fall short of Trump’s guidelines for security and information-sharing.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has partnered with the U.S. in counterterrorism operations against Boko Haram, an African Islamic militant group that has killed nearly 38,000 people since 2011and displaced another 2.5 million, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. This has created a large Nigerian diaspora in the U.S. — about 7,900 immigrant visas were issued to Nigerians in fiscal year 2018.
Similarly, although Sudan has long had poor relations with the U.S., it recently underwent a revolution that ousted longtime leader Omar al-Bashir and the new leadership has been trying to improve its relations with Washington.
But the ban will not only affect nationals of the six countries, but also Americans, civil rights group said.
Zainab Al-Suwaij, the executive director at the American Islamic Congress, has already received multiple calls from immigrants living in the U.S. They are concerned they will no longer be able to reunite with their relatives who were also hoping to immigrate.
According to Xiao Wang, CEO at Boundless Immigration, a company that helps immigrants obtain green cards, the ban is “yet another way that families are being separated under the current immigration policy besides the very visible one that’s happening at the southern border.”
The travel ban will also impact the day-to-day lives of Muslims in the U.S., as such policies based on discrimination tend to fuel hate crimes, Simpson from Muslim Advocates said.
The NO BAN Act
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the ban a “discrimination disguised as policy” and announced that the House will soon vote on a bill that dismantles it.
The bill, known as the National Origin-Based Anti-discrimination for Nonimmigrants (NO BAN) Act, would also limit the president from imposing future restrictions based on religion unless he provides strong evidence to justify it before Congress.
“We [at HRW] think it’s really important that any travel restrictions has rational justifications,” Meng said, in support of the act.
The bill is supported by more than 200 members of Congress; 400 civil rights, national security, faith, and community organizations; 50 immigration law professors; and several private companies.
“We are grateful to leaders who are trying to mitigate and prevent the damage these policies have done and restore our role as one of the leading advocates for protections for all vulnerable people, regardless of their country of origin,” said LIRS’ Vignarajah in her statement. “We will continue to hope, pray, and act to ensure that America remains the best hope for freedom in this world.”