By Ted Hesson and Nahal Toosi
May 25, 2017
President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” may be tied up in court, but newly released figures show his administration is issuing fewer visas to visitors from Arab and Muslim-majority countries.
Data posted online this week by the State Department showed that non-immigrant visas granted to people from nearly 50 Muslim-majority countries were down almost 20 percent in April compared to the 2016 monthly average.
When only Arab countries were considered, non-immigrant visas were down nearly 30 percent in April compared to the 2016 monthly average. Visas issued to the six countries targeted by Trump’s March 6 travel ban — Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen — declined even further, down 55 percent compared to the 2016 monthly average.
State Department data made public last month showed similar declines in visas to these three country groupings for March, but the April declines were more dramatic.
William Cocks, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, downplayed the April numbers’ significance. “Visa demand is cyclical, not uniform throughout the year, and affected by various factors at the local and international level,” he said. “Visa issuance numbers tend to increase during peak travel seasons, such as during the summer and the winter holidays, though there may be different trends at the country, nationality, or visa-category level.”
Three immigration experts consulted by POLITICO agreed that the number of visas fluctuated according to season, but said they’d observed no significant fluctuation previously during the months of March and April.
Stephen Pattison, an immigration lawyer in Maryland who spent nearly three decades as a State Department consular officer, said he thinks Trump policies are having a “chilling effect” on travel to the United States from Muslim nations.
“Some people may have canceled trips,” Pattison said. “Some people may have traveled last year but not this year. But I think it would be naive to assume that’s what’s going on in Washington isn’t having an effect on consular adjudications.”
In a possible sign that Trump administration policies are discouraging visits to the U.S. worldwide, non-immigrant visas issued to people from all countries fell 15 percent in April compared to the 2016 monthly average. In March non-immigrant visas issued to all countries rose 5 percent.
Before this spring, the State Department did not release monthly breakdowns of visas; it released only annual totals. So POLITICO compared the March and April 2017 numbers to monthly country averages for 2016, calculated by dividing the State Department’s annual totals by 12.
POLITICO was unable to identify the precise causes for visa declines for Arab, Muslim, travel-ban, and all countries, because the State Department did not make public how many people applied or on how many of those applications were rejected. It is therefore unclear how much of the decline can be attributed to fewer people wanting to visit to the U.S., and how much to the U.S. government denying people entry.
But the drops coincide with a Trump crackdown on immigration in the name of national security. During his 2016 campaign, Trump called for a ban on all Muslims wishing to enter the United States, comments that came back to haunt him in legal challenges to his travel ban.
The State Department already has stepped up vetting procedures for visitors to the United States. The drop in visas may therefore indicate that more visa applicants are now subject to “administrative processing,” wherein visa applications are sent for additional review.
Nearly 69,000 visas were issued to people from nearly 50 Muslim-majority countries in April. In 2016, the monthly average was 85,790.
When the 22 states in the Arab League are tallied, roughly 24,000 visas were issued in April. The monthly average in 2016 was almost 34,000.
Although drops were large for each of the six countries targeted in the second version of the travel ban, the significance of the drops varied according to how many or few people each of these countries sent previously to the U.S.
Somalia, for instance, saw a 68 percent drop in April, but that was off a very low base: Only 451 Somalis received non-immigrant visas in 2016. Iran, on the other hand, saw a 52 percent drop in April. That was more significant, because more than 29,000 Iranians received non-immigrant visas in 2016.
Ted Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said “the uproar over the travel ban” could be discouraging people from all backgrounds from making the trek to the U.S. “That kind of stuff reverberates.”
Alden added that new State Department guidelines sent to consulates around the world likely intensified screening and slowed visa approvals. “We are probably also seeing the real effect of somewhat more rigorous processes at the consulates,” he said.
Alden likened the fallout to the period after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. In a report he co-authored in October 2016, Alden predicted that Trump’s campaign proposal to ban Muslims, if enacted, would result in $36 billion to $71 billion in annual economic losses from falling tourism, travel and foreign student enrollment.
Trump took his first stab at a travel ban in an executive order issued in late January. The order was implemented so suddenly that it caused chaos at airports, with people’s visa status changing mid-flight, and border agents applying it even to legal permanent residents of the United States. The second executive order was tailored more narrowly; for one thing, it did not include Iraq. Even so, non-immigrant visas to Iraq fell 38 percent in April compared to the monthly average from 2016.
Immigration lawyers said they have seen a slowdown extending well beyond the countries listed in either of Trump’s travel ban orders. Ally Bolour, a Los Angeles-based immigration attorney, said he’s seen a drag on processing times for a wide range of applicants, particularly in cases that involve people from the Middle East and North Africa.
“It’s affected everybody, not just the banned countries,” he said. “We have open cases that should been processed already, four months ago, five months ago.”
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com