President Donald Trump added six countries to his administration's travel ban Friday - including Nigeria, Africa's most populous country - in a widely anticipated expansion that Democrats blasted as "clearly discriminatory" against people from predominantly black and Muslim nations.
Citing national security concerns, officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department said the U.S. Government will bar citizens from the six countries from immigrating to the United States. The expansion applies to four nations in Africa - Nigeria, Eritrea, Tanzania and Sudan - and two in Asia: Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar.
The new ban takes effect on Feb. 22; travelers who have received their visas or are in transit at that time will not be impacted. Travelers who have not received their visas will be subject to the ban but will be automatically considered for waivers.
Officials estimate the policy will affect several thousand people a year, based on recent immigrant arrivals from those countries. The policy will now limit immigration from 13 countries.
Trump's initial ban in 2017, which initially targeted Muslim countries, ignited chaos during his first days in office amid allegations that the ban was discriminatory and illegal. The policy was knocked down in federal courts and then reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the new expansion signals that the administration is not going to relent in its efforts to slash immigration during an election year.
Added to robust measures at the U.S. Southern border that have curbed Central American migration in recent months, the targeting of immigrant visas also allows the president to advance his goal of reducing family-based migration.
Trump, in a proclamation issued Friday, said the countries were chosen after an extensive evaluation process that examined travel security and measures and national security threats in dozens of countries; those that made the list were chosen from a recommendation U.S. officials made in January.
"The six additional countries recommended for restrictions in the January 2020 proposal are among the worst performing in the world," Trump said in the proclamation. "However, there are prospects for near-term improvement for these six countries. Each has a functioning government and each maintains productive relations with the United States. Most of the newly identified countries have expressed a willingness to work with the United States to address their deficiencies, although it may take some time to identify and implement specific solutions to resolve the deficiencies."
A statement from the White House on Friday afternoon said that it is "fundamental to national security, and the height of common sense, that if a foreign nation wishes to receive the benefits of immigration and travel to the United States, it must satisfy basic security conditions outlined by America's law-enforcement and intelligence professionals." The White House statement said that "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. The orders have been a tremendous and vital success."
House Democrats attacked the expansion hours before the Trump administration formally unveiled it - and without the details U.S. officials outlined in a telephone call with reporters on Friday afternoon. Democrats called the expansion of the ban "xenophobic" and "reckless" and said there is no evidence of national security threats that would warrant the imposition of travel restrictions.
Speaking anonymously on the call with reporters, Trump administration officials said the president expects to sign a proclamation on Friday.
Federal officials would not offer details of specific national security threats in the six countries for fear of disclosing information to "nefarious" actors there. But officials said there were "gaps and vulnerabilities" in each nation that could be exploited by terrorists and criminals.
Officials said the countries had been selected based on a ranking system that evaluated countries for compliance with various vetting and information standards, as well as terrorist threat risks. The standards they looked at included whether the countries use electronic passports that contain a chip that can be scanned by a computer; whether the country reports theft and loss of passports adequately to the United States or Interpol; whether the country adequately shares other identity information with the United States upon request; whether it shares information on known or suspected terrorists and criminals; whether it shares examples of its passports with the United States so they can be used to determine signs of fraud.
The ban currently prohibits immigrant and most temporary forms of travel to the United States for citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and North Korea, as well as certain visits for some Venezuelan government officials. All but two, Venezuela and North Korea, are majority Muslim. Trump in 2018 complained about accepting too many immigrants from Africa, Haiti and El Salvador, which he labelled "shithole countries."
"We have to be safe. Our country has to be safe. You see what's going on in the world," Trump told reporters last week at a news conference in Davos, Switzerland.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who represents Houston, home to one of the largest concentrations of Nigerian immigrants in the United States, decried the expansion to African countries, saying there are "bad actors" in China and Russia, which are not included in the policy.
"We believe in the process of due process, freedom of movement . . . they are the national and international values that we show to the world," she said Friday, saying Trump abused his power because he bypassed Congress. "This administration has stripped and shredded those values with no basis in security."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Congress plans to vote soon on legislation that would substantially restrict the president's authority to regulate travel to the United States, but the measure is unlikely to clear the Republican-dominated Senate.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit that favors restrictions on immigration, praised the president's actions and said she hopes it will lead to greater passport controls in the targeted countries.
"Everybody's being evaluated and these are countries that didn't make the cut," said Vaughan, who was a U.S. consular officer in the early 1990s. "Some of these countries are going to improve and others may not be able to, and it makes sense for us to exclude some travelers from countries that are not going to improve."
But she said it would have been more effective had Trump also imposed restrictions on temporary visas, because security lapses could allow someone in those countries to obtain a fake or stolen passport to travel overseas. "All it takes is one entry by a terrorist to cause a problem," she said.
The Trump administration's decision to include Nigeria - Africa's most populous country and biggest economy - follows a series of escalating restrictions in recent years on citizens of the West African power.
Of the six new countries, Nigeria also has the largest number of citizens in the United States - about 300,000, not counting their U.S.-born children - with many in Texas, Maryland and New York. Nigerian immigrants and their children were more likely to have a college degree than the overall U.S. population, according to a 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute, and a majority of those born abroad are naturalised U.S. citizens.
The White House also has given elevated scrutiny to Nigeria because its residents are among the largest group to overstay U.S. visas, with the third-highest number of overstays among all countries in 2018, according to DHS.
The number of Nigerian travelers to American soil dropped by about 20 percent last year after the United States suspended its visa interview waiver for frequent visitors and raised entrance fees, federal data show. The State Department cast the increased prices as "reciprocity" in response to Nigeria's charges on U.S. travelers.
The ban is expected to disrupt millions of dollars of business deals, analysts say, as well as freeze a robust flow of Nigerian students to the United States that, according to the Department of Commerce, contributed approximately $514 million to the U.S. economy during the past academic year.
Republicans and Democrats have raised questions about the effectiveness of the travel ban and other "extreme vetting" measures under the Trump administration. After a Saudi military trainee shot and killed three sailors in December at a Naval base in Florida, Republican lawmakers asked the Trump administration to explain why it allowed Saudi military trainees into the country.
Jackson Lee acknowledged national security concerns among some of the countries that were added to the list - such as Boko Haram, one of several extremist groups seeking to build an Islamist state in West Africa. That movement has killed approximately 27,000 people during the past decade. But she said similar security threats exist in China, for example, which she said has terrorised Muslims.
The senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee worried that the ban could backfire by alienating countries and immigrants who have been allies in the fight against terrorism.
Though citizens of the banned countries can apply for waivers if they are denied entry, few receive them. Approximately 10 percent of the 72,000 applications for waivers to the ban filed by citizens of Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria were granted during the past two years, according to a State Department official who testified at a congressional hearing in September.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., called the expanded ban "xenophobic" and "reckless," and said it showed the president's "continued contempt for our founding ideals." He said his parents came to the United States as refugees from Eritrea nearly 40 years ago.
Neguse, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he fears that Trump's targeting of the six additional countries is an attempt to further reduce the number of refugees being allowed into the United States, which already are at historic lows.
Myanmar and Eritrea have been two of the top nationalities represented in U.S. refugee resettlement under the Trump administration, collectively accounting for 22 percent of all of the refugees resettled in fiscal year 2019.
"Myanmar and Eritrea happen to be two of the countries in the top four countries for refugees to the United States, so I don't think it's an accident that the administration is adding those countries to the list," Neguse said.
Sudan, Nigeria, and Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania and Eritrea all have significant Muslim populations; many of those fleeing civil conflict and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar are from the country's Muslim minority.
As a former Soviet republic, Kyrgyzstan is one of the few countries that can take advantage of the Lautenberg Amendment - a special set-aside in the refugee program. Most of the former Soviet nationals who have come to the United States as refugees in recent years are Christians hailing from Ukraine, Russia and Moldova. Of the majority Muslim republics that can take advantage of Lautenberg, Kyrgyzstan has seen the highest number of refugees resettled during the past three fiscal years.
Sudan was the third biggest source of African refugees resettled in 2019, after the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea. The majority of Sudanese and Eritreans resettled were Muslims.