New York Times
By Nicholas Kulish, Gardiner Harris and Ron Nixon
February 2, 2017
Tens of thousands of immigrants find themselves effectively trapped in the United States, unable to travel abroad even for funerals or family health emergencies without risking losing their legal residency status, as the Trump administration struggles with the rocky introduction of its travel ban.
President Trump’s executive order, signed on Friday, suspended entry of refugees to the United States for 120 days and blocked entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Following Mr. Trump’s order, the State Department went even further: It announced that it was revoking the visas of all nationals from those countries, without notifying them, even those who are legally studying, working and living in the United States.
“They aren’t just seeking to prevent people from entering,” said Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “They are excluding people who have been here for a long time once they leave.”
Some immigration lawyers said they feared that the State Department’s cancellation of visas could expose immigrants and other legal foreign residents to deportation, but officials at both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security said those in the United States were not affected.
“This does not apply to individuals who were in the country on a valid visa at the time the order was signed,” said Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
But the loss of their visas means that anyone from those countries who leaves the United States would be unable to return without getting a new visa, a lengthy process that cannot begin until the Trump administration has completed its review of the visa program. It remains unclear why the State Department policy was not announced, which means people have unwittingly jeopardized their homes and livelihoods in the United States by leaving with no clear means to return.
Unlike the refugee ban, which was announced with much fanfare, the canceled visas came to light only as a result of court filings by government lawyers defending the ban against litigation.
Now, many find themselves too afraid of the consequences to risk leaving the country. Those from the seven affected countries have been warned by lawyers that if they leave, their visas will be invalidated and they might be unable to return to the United States.
Trump administration officials said they had chosen the seven countries based on concerns expressed by Obama administration officials, who in 2016 required anyone passing through the seven countries to get a visa. But those involved in the Obama administration effort said that the countries had largely been chosen by Congress as part of immigration legislation passed in 2015 and that the visa reviews were intended to catch Islamic State fighters and not to ban or inconvenience all of those countries’ citizens.
“My parents still live in Iran,” said Mahsa Rouhi, an Iranian who holds a green card and is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “My dad is 82, and if my parents are in need of urgent care, I could face a choice of my job and my life here and caring for my parents. I was advised — most universities and institutions are advising people in my situation — not to travel, not to take the risk.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday that legal permanent residents from the seven countries, also known as green card holders, would be able to enter the United States without getting special waivers. That was a change from the first days following the issuance of Mr. Trump’s executive order, when even green card holders from the seven countries were detained at airports, told to leave the United States or forbidden to get on planes to the United States.
Yet even after the change, green card holders can be turned away at the border at the discretion of Customs and Border Protection officers, as only United States citizens have an irrevocable right to enter the country.
Just last year, the State Department issued 31,804 immigrant visas to people from the seven countries, according to a State Department tally. Thousands more were granted student and other visas last year, and those have also been revoked. The letter excepted only a few classes of visa holders, mainly diplomats and NATO military personnel, leaving au pairs and businesspeople, athletes and artists, even victims of human trafficking without exemptions.
“Basically, they are trapped without some other measures they would have to take, another application process they would have to go through,” said Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the United States immigration program at the Migration Policy Institute and a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Mr. Trump’s travel ban led to chaos at American airports, left would-be immigrants stranded at airports around the world and shut refugees out of a country that had issued them visas and, until Friday’s executive order, had seemed poised to welcome them.
“While someone at D.H.S. might have known this was coming, they clearly were not given the opportunity to prepare. They were told to implement it immediately by the White House,” Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday after a closed-door briefing by Homeland Security officials. “As a result, the gathering of the appropriate officials to actually make this order operational did not even happen until after the order was signed. No wonder it was chaotic and rocky.”
Ali Hamandi, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard in health policy, said he had just returned from speaking with university officials about whether the policies could affect him. A Canadian citizen born in Iraq, he said he had found so much contradictory information online that he felt his only option was to cancel his travel plans and stay put.
“There are layers of misinformation,” Mr. Hamandi said. “Emotionally it’s quite devastating.”
In the hours after the executive order was signed, border officials detained or turned away anyone who was born in or had a passport from one of the seven countries, even those who also had citizenship in countries other than the targeted seven. But after the intervention of British and Canadian diplomats, Trump administration officials agreed to exempt dual-passport holders who presented passports from other countries. Under the new rules, dual citizens can now legally re-enter the United States if they leave, officials said.
Adding to the concern, several green card holders, including Ms. Rouhi, said they had received unexpected notification this week that their Global Entry Trusted Traveler Network status had been revoked. The National Iranian American Council had been contacted by five individuals who were green card holders who had their Global Entry status revoked, an official there said.
A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection declined to address the reports of canceled Global Entry memberships but said that enrollees in the program, which allows approved, low-risk travelers expedited clearance into the United States when they arrive, can be kicked out for a number of reasons, including being inadmissible to the United States under immigration regulations.
Ali Vaez, a senior analyst for Iran at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization, said he had learned that his membership in Global Entry was abruptly cut off on Tuesday when he received a message stating, “You do not meet program eligibility requirements.” Mr. Vaez said that although he had a green card, the sudden revocation of his Global Entry status had caused him to reconsider traveling outside the United States while such uncertainty reigned.
“I thought because permanent residents were exempted from this, it was fine, but because my Global Entry status was revoked, I have new concerns,” he said.
“I have to cancel briefings at European parliaments. I have to cancel research trips in Turkey because I’m not sure if I leave the country I’d be able to get back in,” Mr. Vaez said. “The rules and regulations are changing by the hour, by the day. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty.”
“I have my life here,” he added, noting that he has a wife and a house in Washington. “I just can’t risk it.”
Mr. Vaez noted that his green card had been granted under the national-interest provision of immigration law. Not only did he pass the screening for the Trusted Traveler Network, he has been allowed inside the Pentagon and even the White House Situation Room as part of his work.
“What has not been vetted properly is not people like me, it’s this new executive order,” he said. “That’s really the problem.”
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