Trump’s Refugee Ban Has Ripple Effects Even Before It’s Issued

DHS has halted refugee interviews, Arab students complain of being barred from re-entry, and lawyers warn visa holders not to leave the country.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 24: President Donald Trump looks on after signing one of five executive orders related to the oil pipeline industry in the Oval Office of the White House January 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured are White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (L), White House Communications Director Hope Hicks (2nd R) and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (R). (Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 24: President Donald Trump looks on after signing one of five executive orders related to the oil pipeline industry in the Oval Office of the White House January 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured are White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (L), White House Communications Director Hope Hicks (2nd R) and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (R). (Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

Even before President Donald Trump formally issued an executive order Friday to bar refugees and suspend some immigrant visas, the directive was already prompting panic in the U.S. immigrant community and leading State Department officials and contractors to weigh warning Arab students not to leave the country.

U.S. officials confirmed to Foreign Policy that since Trump’s inauguration, they’ve started seeing abrupt changes to current practices and increased reports of foreign nationals from the Middle East being blocked from entering the United States, despite having valid visas.

One government official working on immigration issues, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Friday that there have been more complaints than usual this past week from Middle Easterners — many of them students — who have had their visas revoked, sometimes even after reaching U.S. soil.

And on Wednesday, Trump officials told Department of Homeland Security staff that all trips to conduct in-person interviews of refugee applicants should be stopped, FP has learned. That includes one on tap almost immediately to Turkey, which is hosting more than 2.8 million Syrian refugees.

On Friday, the American Immigration Lawyers Association posted a travel warning directing attorneys to consider advising clients who might be affected by Trump’s forthcoming executive order to refrain from traveling abroad or, if already outside the country, to return as quickly as possible.

“The [draft] order also does not define what it means to be ‘from’ a designated country,” the statement read. “Thus, in an abundance of caution, it may be best to interpret the term broadly to include passport holders, citizens, nationals, dual nationals, etc.”

Trump’s executive order, which he signed at the Defense Department on Friday, is ultimately a sweeping, seismic upending of decades of U.S. policy on immigration and refugees that threatens to complicate the U.S. fight against extremists in the Middle East and North Africa.

The order, released late Friday evening, suspends the entire U.S. refugee admissions program for at least four months, and, once resumed, cuts it roughly in half, to 50,000. It indefinitely freezes the entry of refugees from Syria, and bars for at least three months an almost unlimited group of travelers from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, deeming their entry would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people,” Trump said in the signing ceremony at the Pentagon. “We will never forget the lessons of 9/11.”

“‘Protection of the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States,'” he said, reading the title, “We all know what that means.”

During the presidential campaign, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” — whether as refugees or immigrants or visitors — until authorities “can figure out what’s going on.” But Trump later appeared to soften that stance, with his initial call for a Muslim ban morphing into something he calls “extreme vetting.”

Friday’s order suspends “immigrant and non-immigrant entry,” a category that includes those with student visas,. As written, the ban may even be applicable to those who had merely visited those countries. But the order carves out explicit exceptions and priority for entry of people “in the national interest,” including those of a persecuted religious minority in their country of origin — i.e, in the context of the seven blocked Muslim-majority countries, non-Muslims. 

“Trump has promised a Muslim ban and is by all accounts poised to sign an order targeting Muslims and preferring Christians,” said Omar Jadwat, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, before the order was released. “It would not be surprising if the agencies he now controls were also taking other measures to translate the extreme bias that he has espoused into official action.”

Sherizaan Minwalla, a human rights lawyer at American University who has worked with Iraqi Yazidis, said there has been a lot of panic among lawyers and immigrants over the executive order draft. “If that is what we are going to start seeing, that is a huge cause for concern,” she said.

Friday evening and the weekend have seen chaos at airports around the world and in the United States, with DHS and the White House apparently still working out the details of the executive order’s implementation. Trump, signing additional executive orders at the White House Saturday afternoon, including reorganizing the National Security Council and calling for an anti-ISIS plan, said the refugee ban is “working out very nicely.”

“It’s not a Muslim ban, but we were totally prepared,” Trump said. “You see it at the airports, you see it all over.”

While Trump presented the order signed Friday as following through on his pledge for “extreme vetting,” Homeland Security had already days before stopped all in-person interviews with asylum-seekers, an important part of the vetting process that potential refugees go through that takes nearly two-years, on average. 

Two senior DHS officials told FP that all trips related to refugee interviews have been scrapped; officially, DHS says they are just on hold.

“While U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has delayed a number of upcoming trips, those trips have not been officially canceled,” DHS spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement Thursday to FP.

Most DHS and State Department interviews have taken place in Istanbul and Amman, Jordan, but in 2015 the State Department doubled the number of screening outposts available to refugees in the Middle East by opening new processing centers in Irbil, Iraq, and reopening in Lebanon. From fiscal 2011 to the end of 2015 alone, DHS had conducted more than 7,000 in-person interviews of Syrians.

Trump’s executive order also requires periodic reports on foreign nationals in the U.S. who have been charged with or engaged in “terrorism-related offenses.” He may not get the kind of data he’s seeking: Since 1990, of the 182 terrorists inspired by jihadist ideology who have attempted to carry out attacks in the U.S. or on U.S.-bound flights, 101 were U.S. citizens and “few” were “recent arrivals,” according to testimony by the RAND Corporation.   

Of the some 12 million people displaced from Syria alone, the United States only accepted 13,120 refugees by the end of last year. According to the Obama White House, as of late 2015, “not a single one” of those accepted from Syria have ever been arrested under suspicion of terrorism.

The potential imposition of limits on immigration and Muslim entry into the United States also seems to be hitting university students with F-1 visas.

Hazami Barmada, a Harvard University student and activist, said she has learned of at least four cases in the past week of Arab students on valid student visas who were barred from re-entering the United States after winter break and given no explanation for their visas being revoked. All four are graduate students, some at Harvard and Brown University, and claim to have up-to-date, multiple-entry visas.

In one case, she said a student arrived to the United States and was told his visa was cancelled. He was detained and given the choice of buying a ticket to fly back to his home country or being forcibly removed.

The students did not come exclusively from countries singled out by Trump’s drafted executive order, said Barmada, adding that lawyers advised them to keep their identities private while their cases are pending.

A spokesperson from Brown declined to discuss specific visa situations of students but said, “We have been vigilant and persistent in reaching out to international students to ensure that we are knowledgeable about their status.” Harvard declined to comment on the matter.

Senior DHS officials told FP that they were unaware of any policy change revoking visas from F-1 students or other immigrants on valid short-term or multiple-entry visas. A spokesperson at Customs and Border Patrol said he was unable to comment on any specific cases due to privacy laws.

Work and study visas can be suddenly revoked without explanation, in particular for people from the Middle East, and similar incidents occurred during the Obama administration. But the timing and the swiftness of the recent refusals of entry — during Trump’s tumultuous first week in office — have added to the uncertainty and fear many feel over the roll out of his immigration policy.

“It was a misinterpretation of the law, either in error, or some kind of policy that hasn’t been disclosed openly and honestly,” Barmada said. “It feels like post-9/11 era all over again.”

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. EST.

Photo credit: SHAWN THEW/Pool/Getty Images