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December 16, 2017

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Trump’s travel ban to be replaced by rules tailored to certain countries

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Doug Mills / The New York Times

President Donald Trump talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a luncheon hosted by Secretary General António Guterres during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 19, 2017. Trump’s ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries is set to be replaced as soon as this weekend with more targeted restrictions on visits to the U.S. that would vary by country, officials familiar with the plans said on Sept. 22.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is replacing his ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries with severe restrictions on visitors from nations he has determined do too little to protect against terrorists and criminals coming into the United States, officials said Friday.

The new travel restrictions could include indefinite bans on entry until vetting procedures and security cooperation improve, officials said. They will go into effect as soon as Sunday, after the conclusion of a 90-day policy review undertaken as part of the administration’s original travel ban.

Officials said Trump will soon announce the list of countries subject to the travel restrictions. They declined to say whether the list would include all six countries from which travel was temporarily banned by a revised executive order in March: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The president hinted that the changes were coming in a tweet after a crude bomb exploded on a London Underground train last week: “The travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher and more specific," Trump wrote. Officials said Trump was given a “decision brief” on the travel ban by senior officials during a meeting Friday at the president’s club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

The announcement is the culmination of the biggest legal challenge to Trump’s presidential authority since he took office. It came just over two weeks before the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in lawsuits that claim Trump exceeded his authority and defied the constitution by banning entry from the six countries.

“We need to know who is coming into our country. We should be able to validate their identities,” said Miles Taylor, the counselor to the secretary of homeland security. He said the new restrictions represent a significant increase in toughening “national security standards and protecting the homeland.”

The administration’s critics expressed deep reservations about the new restrictions and left open the possibility that they will file additional legal challenges once the list of countries is revealed.

“We tend to look at anything coming out of this White House with a great deal of skepticism,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “While it has been clear that a neutral vetting system across the board needs to be looked at on its merits, this seems to be a third rescue of the failed Muslim ban.”

In stark contrast to the original travel ban, which was implemented with virtually no notice only days after Trump took office, officials said the new travel restrictions were developed after intense negotiations with security officials in countries around the world.

Those officials were given standards they must meet in order to avoid travel restrictions, including the ability to verify the identity of a traveler, communicate electronic passport information, use biometric devices and share information about terrorist and criminal networks with the United States.

Countries that did not meet those standards as of mid-July were given 50 days to comply or face the threat of severe travel restrictions, officials said.

“It was crystal clear," Taylor told reporters Friday. To countries who failed to meet or accept the new requirements, Taylor said, the message from U.S. diplomats was blunt: “You will face potential consequences from the United States.”

In the end, officials said that some of those countries added measures to improve security for passports and to better identify potential terrorist threats. They will not face additional travel restrictions. But other countries either could not meet the tougher vetting standards or refused to engage with the U.S. government.

People in the countries that will be identified by Trump will soon face new travel restrictions, officials said.

“The Trump administration will ensure that the people who travel to the United States are properly vetted and those that don’t belong here aren’t allowed to enter,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant secretary of homeland security for public affairs.

Trump’s original ban blocked all travel to the United States by refugees as well as nationals of seven countries, including Iraq, which was later deemed to have improved its screening of potential travelers and was taken off the banned list.

The ban caused chaos at airports around the country and prompted a torrent of criticism from immigrant rights activists, lawmakers in both parties, business executives, academic leaders and diplomats from around the world.

A furious legal assault on the president’s travel ban delayed its implementation for months, as federal judges agreed with immigrant rights groups that the original ban unconstitutionally targeted a particular religion or exceeded the president’s statutory authority to block immigration. In June, the Supreme Court allowed the travel ban to take effect, with some significant restrictions, while the justices consider the merits of the case.

The changes to be announced this weekend could have a profound impact on the court case, complicating the review by the justices and potentially making parts of the case moot even before the oral arguments, which are scheduled for Oct. 10.

Officials from the Department of Justice declined to answer questions about whether they intend to take any actions related to the court case before the oral arguments. A spokesman for the department told reporters that “we are continuing to vigorously defend the president’s executive order.”

The original travel ban included restrictions on entry into the United States by refugees from around the world. The new rules do not appear to alter the limits on refugees, leaving that question open for the Supreme Court to decide.

The justices are likely to seek new input from lawyers for the government and for the groups challenging the travel ban before arguments begin.

Restrictions on travel are not unique to the Trump administration. The Department of Homeland Security employs almost 2,000 people in about 80 countries around the world screening high-risk travelers seeking to visit the United States.

For years, customs officers in the Immigration Advisory Program worked with airline employees and foreign security officials to review passenger ticketing data and examined documents in an attempt to detect fraud. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents and State Department counterterrorism officials are also stationed at diplomatic posts to screen visa applicants for ties to terrorism, drug smuggling and human trafficking and to help ensure that ineligible applicants do not receive visas.

Dozens of officers at the National Targeting Center, which is run by Customs and Border Protection, have combed through passenger lists and cargo manifests since the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Officers help identify which passengers should be subject to additional questioning by customs officers.

Trump and his national security officials have argued from the beginning that the travel ban was intended to give the government time to ensure that those practices were sufficient to make sure that terrorists are not able to enter the United States using travel documents for people on vacation or seeking temporary employment.

Critics accused the administration of basing threat assessments of travelers solely on the religion of the majority of people who lived in the nations identified by the executive order.

Some counterterrorism experts say a targeted vetting system that screens individuals on a case-by-case basis makes more sense than a total ban on travelers from certain countries.

“Vetting those coming to the United States against the broadest array of intelligence and law enforcement information is good security. Banning people because of their religion, ethnicity or country of origin is not good security and counter to our constitutional principles,” said John D. Cohen, a professor at Rutgers University and a senior Homeland Security Department official during the Obama administration.

Cohen other counterterrorism experts said the Trump administration should beef up the existing programs that are intended to prevent criminals and national security threats from entering the country.