Few visa waivers issued in first two years of Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’

People gather to pray in baggage claim during a protest against the travel ban imposed by President Donald Trump’s executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman/Files

WASHINGTON – Ailing grandmothers, spouses and the toddlers of U.S. citizens are still being blocked from entering the United States under a travel ban that President Donald Trump imposed during his first week in office, his administration continuing to argue that people from five predominantly Muslim countries pose a national security threat.

Since the initial rollout, in early 2017, of what critics and federal judges have branded a “Muslim ban,” the Trump administration has fielded approximately 72,000 visa applications from the citizens of Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria, a U.S. State Department official told members of Congress on Tuesday. Approximately 10 percent of those applicants – 7,679 – have received waivers to enter the United States, according to Edward Ramotowski, deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, who testified during a House judiciary and foreign affairs subcommittee hearing.

The hearing, the first before Congress on the subject of the travel restrictions since they were implemented, came as Trump spoke before the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, condemning “globalists” and hailing the “cherished history, culture and heritage” that he said makes the United States great. He said that is something “the free world . . . must not attempt to erase.”

The ban on U.S. entry by the citizens of several majority-Muslim countries hit repeated legal roadblocks during Trump’s first year in office as federal judges found that the ban, which followed his campaign pledge to enact a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” violated core principles of U.S. law.

But after the White House tweaked and revised its approach, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the third iteration of the policy last year, ruling 5 to 4 that it fell within the president’s executive purview. The court accepted the administration’s claim that the ban served a national security interest, in part because of its inclusion of a “waiver program” that would allow certain humanitarian exceptions to the ban. Such examples include those seeking urgent medical care or trying to live with close family members who already are in the United States.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., pointed out that the countries Trump targeted derived from a list of nations the Obama administration had chosen for added scrutiny after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

“The Trump administration didn’t just pull these names out of a hat,” Biggs said. “It was using the same countries as the previous administration.”

Ramotowski said the administration has granted “roughly half” of the 7,600 waivers within the past two months, largely because of a shift to an automated processing system. He said security reviews were part of a “time-consuming manual process” that led to a backlog of cases.

He and two officials from the Department of Homeland Security were unable to describe the specific national security rationale behind the inclusion of some countries on the list – and the exclusion of others – and Democratic lawmakers provided anecdotes of those affected by the restrictions, including a 2-year-old Libyan girl kept apart from her American mother, and a congressional staffer whose “85-year-old Iranian grandmother” has been prohibited from visiting.

The policy applies to nearly all citizens of majority-Muslim Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria, as well as to nearly all citizens of North Korea and some Venezuelan government officials. But the State Department received no applications from Venezuelans who would have been subject to the restrictions; 115 North Koreans sought entry, 72 percent of whom were allowed into the country through waivers or exceptions.

“I find it hard to fathom that that 2-year-old didn’t face undue hardship,” Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., said of the Libyan girl, Omnia, during the hearing. “I find it hard to fathom that that 2-year-old presented a national security risk.”

Democrats also posed questions about countries not on the list.

“The people who attacked us on 9/11 – they were from Saudi Arabia. They’re not on the list,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration and citizenship. “Russia attacked us in the last election – they’re not on the list.”

Elizabeth Neumann, a DHS assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy, said that she would be able to address country-specific questions only in a closed session.

Abdollah Dehzangi, a computer science professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, testified that the travel restrictions had prevented his wife, an Iranian scientist who had been offered a post-doctoral research position at the University of Maryland, from moving to be with him in the United States. Ismail Alghazali, who works in a Brooklyn bodega, said his Yemeni wife had delivered both of their children in the time they have spent waiting – now three years – for a visa to join him.

Ramotowski said he expects visa applications to be handled more quickly; each application includes automatic consideration of a possible waiver. There is no separate process through which to apply for a waiver after a visa application has been denied.

“I was completely dismayed by the lack of clarity on the waiver process,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who introduced a bill this year to overturn the restrictions, said in an interview. “It seemed to me that these bureaucrats could give no clarity on how it is supposed to work and why it isn’t working.”

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