Trump administration expands travel ban

By Caitlin Oprysko, Anita Kumar and Nahal Toosi

President Donald Trump will expand his contentious travel ban, placing new restrictions on six additional countries, just as he embarks on a tough reelection campaign where he will tout his hard-line stance on immigration.

Immigrant visas will be suspended for citizens of four countries — Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, Myanmar (also known as Burma), Eritrea and Kyrgyzstan — while people from Sudan and Tanzania will be barred from the U.S. diversity visa program, which awards green cards to immigrants. The new restrictions won't apply to tourist, business or other nonimmigrant travel, according to Homeland Security Department officials who detailed the new updates on Friday.

The new order, which Trump signed Friday and will go into effect on Feb. 22, immediately restarted the debate over whether the travel ban singles out Muslims, while also drawing renewed attention to the president’s past remarks about “shithole countries” in Africa and his specific remarks that Nigerians coming to the U.S. will never “go back to their huts.”

“I’m not surprised that the countries included are home to many Muslims, whom he has mercilessly denigrated to score political points," said Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), the second Muslim to be elected to Congress. “And I’m not surprised that many on this new list are also African nations, which he has previously insulted in some of the most vulgar and offensive ways. As a Muslim and a black man, it pains me to witness this low moment for our country."

But the Trump administration cited security concerns, saying each of the six countries displayed an “unwillingness or inability” to adhere to “baseline” security criteria. It cited insufficient information sharing from the countries’ governments about criminal and terrorism data, a lack of electronic passport systems and issues with Interpol reporting methods.

"President Trump’s security and travel proclamations have immeasurably improved our national security, substantially raised the global standard for information-sharing, and dramatically strengthened the integrity of the United States’ immigration system," White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grishan said in a statement. "The orders have been a tremendous and vital success."

Trump signed the initial travel ban just a week into his tenure, creating an immediate flashpoint for his presidency and sparking massive, nationwide protests. But Friday’s announcement about the update was overshadowed by Trump's impeachment trial, the coronavirus outbreak in China and the upcoming Iowa caucuses.

An announcement of the expansion was initially slated for this past Monday, the third anniversary of the original ban, a contentious executive order that restricted travel from several majority-Muslim countries. But it was pushed back as the White House mobilized to handle the coronavirus crisis, which prompted the Trump administration on Friday to declare a public health emergency.

Trump, a businessman with no experience in politics when he entered office in 2017, has failed to accomplish many of the lofty promises he made on immigration: The border wall remains largely unbuilt, and so-called sanctuary cities are still receiving federal money, for instance. He has repeatedly ousted Homeland Security officials he views as too weak on immigration in the hopes of pushing through his more strident policies.

Trump was looking to unveil the expansion before Tuesday’s State of the Union address to Congress, where he is expected to defend his tough stance on immigration.

The initial executive order, which followed a call from Trump during the 2016 campaign for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” initially denied visas to citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries. It was later modified as it went through a series of court challenges.

The Supreme Court eventually allowed a third version of the order to go into effect. That version restricted entry of some citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, along with Venezuela and North Korea. Chad was removed from the original list.

Officials on Friday said the updated ban would focus on foreigners seeking permanent residence in the U.S., rather than all travelers, because immigrant visa recipients are more difficult to remove from the country if a security issue is found.

The officials stressed that they were talked to the the six countries about “remedying” their particular deficiencies, leaving open the possibility that each could be removed from the list. For instance, they noted that Chad was removed from the initial version of the ban for this reason. And Tanzania and Sudan, they added, were facing only a suspension of diversity visas because the administration said they saw a “greater prospect for improvement” from them.

Citizens of the countries included in Friday’s expansion still might be eligible for waivers or exemptions to the new rules. The administration officials cited potential exceptions for special immigrant visas like those for embassy officials or individuals who help translate for the military, or for those who have experienced acute hardship.

“Just like the previous one, today’s proclamation is narrowly tailored to address legitimate security concerns identified by administration officials who know far more than we do,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors immigration restrictions. “There is no religious or racial bias, contrary to arguments by those who simply oppose anything President Trump does on immigration.”

Nigeria, a nation of some 200 million people, is Africa’s most populous country and its largest economy. It is a major source of African migrants to the United States, and Nigerian-Americans are among the most educated and financially successful diaspora groups in America.

Trump has in the past spoken of wanting to expand the U.S. trade relationship with Nigeria, which also is a major oil-producing nation.

Nigeria has faced violence within its borders, including from the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. The U.S. has helped Nigeria fight its internal terrorism threat, while Nigeria is part of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State terrorist group.

The Nigerian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Immigration advocacy groups swiftly denounced the move, as they had been preemptively doing ahead of the expected announcement.

“The ban should be ended, not expanded. 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,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Families, universities, and businesses in the United States are paying an ever-higher price for President Trump’s ignorance and racism.”

Reports of an expansion of the travel ban began to emerge earlier this month. Trump himself confirmed the reports at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

“We’re adding a couple of countries to it,” he told reporters, calling the current version of the ban “very strong.” Nevertheless, he continued, “we have to be safe. Our country has to be safe. You see what’s going on in the world. Our country has to be safe.”

The initial travel ban was extremely polarizing. Public polling at the time was inconsistent, with some showing strong support and others finding strong opposition. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released earlier this week found a similar split in opinion about a potential expansion, with a slight plurality opposed.

The poll found that while 39 percent of registered voters approved of expanding the travel ban, 41 percent opposed it, differences of opinion that fell within the survey’s margin of error. Support or opposition fell largely along party lines. Close to three-quarters of Republicans backed an expansion, while two-thirds of Democrats — and 42 percent of independents — opposed expanding the ban.