By Nahal Toosi
February 20, 2017
The Trump administration is considering dropping an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees in a revised executive order on immigration that the president is expected to release this week, according to a source briefed on drafts of the plans.
The revised order, however, would keep in place provisions that temporarily ban the admission of all refugees, including Syrians. It also will temporarily halt the future issuance of visas to people from the same seven predominantly Muslim countries targeted by the legally contentious order it is designed to replace.
Critics fear those temporary bans will effectively turn indefinite. That’s because some, possibly all, of the countries targeted — as well as programs for Syrian and other refugees — may not be able to meet the vetting standards that President Donald Trump decides to set to lift the temporary bans. The seven countries are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
The source stressed that what had been described to him was still draft information and could change. A White House spokesman declined to confirm any details, saying, “Nothing you’ve been told is final.”
The ACLU and other groups say that, regardless of the revisions, they will likely pursue ongoing lawsuits in courts that have already prevented the administration from enforcing the first order. Critics have widely derided that order as a “Muslim ban,” but the president has insisted his actions are needed to keep the United States safe from terrorists.
“As long as there continues to be a ban, we will pursue our lawsuits,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The discrimination that spurred the ban doesn’t simply disappear by the removal of a few words.”
It was not clear if the revised executive order would drop language in the original that stated religious minorities should get preference in the admissions process. Legally speaking, however, dropping that language could aid the administration as it tries to defend the order in the courts.
This past week, during the Munich Security Conference, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly previewed some elements of the expected revised order. He said it would be phased in over a few days so that people who are already on planes heading to the United States are not suddenly barred upon arrival. Kelly also indicated that the new executive order would not apply to legal permanent residents of the United States.
The source briefed on the drafts said the new order also would likely exempt dual nationals of the seven countries — a French-Libyan person who has a French passport, for instance, could likely travel to the U.S. on that passport.
People from the seven countries who already hold valid U.S. visas will likely be exempted from the travel ban, the source said. It’s not clear what will happen to people who had valid visas that were canceled as a result of the rollout of the first version of the executive order.
The administration tried to immediately implement the previous executive order, released on Jan. 27, leading to chaos at airports nationwide as permanent residents, visa holders from the seven countries, and others were suddenly not allowed into the United States.
Lawyers and protesters jammed airports that weekend, demanding that stranded travelers be permitted entry. The initial order even appeared to apply to Iraqi interpreters who had assisted U.S. troops and been given special visas after months of vetting; the new version is likely to exempt those Iraqis from the ban, thanks in part to demands from Defense Department officials.
While at the Munich conference, Kelly characterized the executive orders as mere pauses of a few months to allow the new administration to examine the various visa and refugee programs for any security gaps. Critics believe that Trump will demand such strict standards, requiring for instance, the cooperation of hostile governments such as Iran’s, to help vet travelers, that the pauses could be permanent.
Trump has said in interviews that he wants religious minorities overseas — specifically Christians — to have preference in admission to the United States. He also said during his campaign for president that the U.S. should, on national security grounds, bar all Muslims from entry, a position he later switched to what he called “extreme vetting.”
Advocates for refugees and immigrants say current vetting procedures are already extremely strict, with permission to enter the United States sometimes taking years to obtain. The federal lawsuits against the Trump administration have used his public statements as evidence that he is trying to impose a religious test for U.S. entry.
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