WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday added six countries to his list of nations facing stringent travel restrictions, a move that will virtually block immigration from Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, and from Myanmar, where the Muslim minority is fleeing genocide.
Beside Nigeria, varying degrees of restrictions will hit three other African countries, Eritrea, Sudan and Tanzania, will face varying degrees of restrictions, as will one former Soviet state, Kyrgyzstan. Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya Muslims could also be caught in the crossfire.
All six countries have substantial Muslim populations. The total number of countries now on the restricted travel list stands at 13.
Immigrant visas, issued to those seeking to live in the United States, will be banned for Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea and Kyrgyzstan. The ban will also prevent immigrants from Sudan and Tanzania from moving to the United States through the diversity visa lottery, which grants green cards to as many as 50,000 people a year.
The proclamation will take effect on Feb. 22. Immigrants who obtain visas before then will still be able to travel to the United States, officials said. Nonimmigrant visas, including those for students and temporary workers, as well as visas reserved for potential employees with specialized skills, will not be affected by the ban.
Immigrants will be able to apply for waivers from the restrictions. The administration has said waivers are issued to those who would experience undue hardship if denied entry into the United States, although the process has been criticized as opaque.
The administration has argued that the ban, enacted in 2017 to restrict travel from Muslim-majority countries, is necessary to ensure that countries satisfy security requirements for travel into the United States, or face restrictions until they do.
The expansion of the restrictions, which already affected more than 135 million people in seven countries, is likely to hinder more than 12,300 potential immigrants in the next year from resettling, finding work or reuniting with their families in the United States. The effect on Nigeria, not only Africa’s most populous country but also its largest economy, could be particularly severe. The United States issued more than 7,920 immigrant visas to Nigerians in the 2018 fiscal year, the second-most of any African country.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity said Eritrea, Tanzania and Kyrgyzstan were being added to the list because each country had either had not satisfied the administration’s information-sharing requirements related to terrorism or did not have updated passport systems.
The officials said Sudan remained a state sponsor of terrorism, even though the country has transitioned to a civilian-run government from one ruled by its military.
While Nigeria has partnered with the American military, the officials noted an “elevated risk and threat environment in the country,” when justifying the travel restrictions.
Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, said earlier this week that Nigerian officials had not been advised their country would be included in the ban.
“It would be quite unfortunate if for any reason Nigeria were on the list,” Mohammed said, noting the two government’s cooperation in combating terrorism. “It would be a double jeopardy: The country has committed a lot of resources to fight terrorism. Any travel ban cannot but be inimical to the growth of the country.”
He added, “Once a travel ban is imposed on a country, the consequences are not always pleasant.”
The extension of the travel ban comes at a delicate time for international travel amid a coronavirus outbreak in China. The administration also announced on Friday that most foreign nationals traveling from China would be temporarily suspended entry in the United States.
But it also comes as the 2020 election heats up. Trump is expected to use his travel ban, as well as his efforts to cut refugee admissions, to rally his political base as his administration contends with a Senate impeachment trial.
Some of the most vulnerable populations in the world had one door to the United States shut last fall when Trump lowered his cap on refugee admissions to 18,000, down from 30,000 in the year prior. The administration has also severely restricted the ability for migrants to obtain asylum at the southwest border.
In countries like Myanmar, which is also called Burma, the expansion of the travel ban closes off another avenue for many seeking safety or family reunification.
“Nearly 5,000 Burmese refugees started to rebuild their lives in America last year, many of whom seek to reunite with family still in harm’s way,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement agency.
Trump has made disparaging comments about African nations in the past, complaining that Nigerians who entered the United States on visas would never “go back to their huts.”
Democrats, who have long opposed the ban, condemned its expansion.
“President Trump and his administration’s continued disdain for our nation’s national security and our founding ideals of liberty and justice dishonor our proud immigrant heritage and the diversity that strengthens and enriches our communities,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement.
Days after he came into office, Trump signed an executive order that closed the country’s borders to people from seven predominantly Muslim-majority countries, making partial good on a campaign pledge “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
The policy took even some of Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security officials by surprise and prompted widespread confusion at airports across the nation.
The ban drew several legal challenges but, after some adjustments, was narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018. The ban initially restricted travel from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Chad — as well as Venezuela and North Korea. Chad was later removed from the list. The court’s majority argued that the policy was not a Muslim ban, citing the inclusion of North Korea and Venezuela and the administration’s process of granting exemptions.
Chief Justice John Roberts also wrote for the majority that Trump had the statutory authority to make national security judgments in the realm of immigration. More than 79,700 visas have been subject to the ban since December 2017, according to the State Department.
Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in a statement on Friday that the committee would discuss legislation to repeal the ban, which excludes “large classes of people, without adequate justification, and in some cases, to implement sweeping changes that contradict existing law.”
In recent weeks, American citizens, as well as immigrants and potential students, have felt the consequences of the increased vetting that has come with the travel bans.
After the death of Iran’s powerful commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in an attack ordered by Trump, Customs and Border Protection officers at American borders stepped up vetting of travelers of Iranian descent, including American citizens and legal permanent residents, who have a constitutional right to enter the United States. Two days after the attack, hundreds of Iranians and Iranian Americans travelers were held for hours at a port of entry in Blaine, Washington, where many said they were subjected to questioning about their religious and political beliefs.
Customs and Border Protection officials denied afterward that a national directive had been issued to detain or deny entry to travelers based solely on their connections to Iran. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. later reported that it had obtained documents stating that a directive had, in fact, been issued.
A Department of Homeland Security official confirmed the authenticity of the document, adding that the directive was limited to the field office in Blaine. It stated that Iranians as well as “any other nationality that has traveled to Iran or Lebanon” should be subjected to increased vetting.
A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on the document but said the situation was under investigation, and that, “at no time did DHS/CBP issue a directive to deny entry to any individual.” The spokesman did not say whether Iranians were being subjected to increased vetting as a matter of policy.
Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House and helped found Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards, said the additions to the ban would not just affect foreigners but also American citizens.
“It has become a de facto family separation policy besides the obvious one at the border,” Rand said. “This will just magnify the pain to extend it to other countries.”