Visitors from six predominantly Muslim nations will be denied visas to the United States under new guidelines that take effect Thursday night unless they can prove very close family ties to someone already in the country or an institution such as a workplace or university.
The rules sent to diplomatic posts worldwide Wednesday prompted immediate criticism for the narrow and somewhat quirky definition of close family. A son-in-law or a step-daughter can get in, but a grandmother or uncle cannot. Senior administration officials said they drew up the list of close relationships based on the definition of family in the Immigration and Nationality Act passed almost 50 years ago.
The relatives deemed sufficiently close family to exempt people from the travel ban, whether as visitors or refugees, are listed as a parent, spouse, child, an adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling, as well as their stepfamily counterparts. The exemption explicitly does not cover a number of other family relationships: grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, fiances and other âextendedâ family members.
The travel ban stems from an executive order blocking travelers from six targeted countries â Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen â from entering the United States for 90 days, and 120 days for refugees. The restrictions have been challenged in courts around the country, but the Supreme Court has allowed a modified version to go forward for the time being.
The rules do not take effect until 8 p.m. Thursday, a deadline imposed in part to prevent people from being unexpectedly turned away upon arrival in the United States, as happened earlier in the year when a sudden ban surprised people already en route. Travelers holding visas who already have booked travel through at least July 6 should have no problems getting admitted, administration officials said. It is unclear what will happen to people with flight reservations on later dates.
Some civil rights and immigration law groups said they would send monitors to airports in Washington, New York and Los Angeles to provide assistance to anyone wrongfully denied entry. But senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, at the administration’s insistence, said they did not expect any confusion and that almost nobody should be denied entry under the new guidelines in the coming days.
“It will be business as usual for us,” an official said. “People are prepared to handle entries professionally, respectfully and responsibly, as always.”
The new guidelinesâ impact on refuÂgee flows this year is difficult to predict. More than half of all U.S.-bound refugees typically have some family in the United States, though in some cases the relatives may be in the excluded category. A cap of 50,000 refugees who will be allowed to resettle in the United States this fiscal year has nearly been reached, with 49,009 refugees admitted as of Wednesday night.
The new rules were drawn up after the Supreme Court ruled Monday that a limited version of the travel ban could take effect until after it hears the case, probably in the first week in October. It said visitors with a âbona fideâ relationship with a person or entity in the United States could not be barred, prompting the Justice and State departments to come up with instructions on who fits in that category.
Officials say that cases will be judged on their individual merits. So some visitors and refugees may be granted entry even without a “bona fide” relationship, such as a grandmother or an aunt who raised someone now living in the United States.
“We will look at it case by case,” said another administration official. “It won’t be the relationship that’s the determining factor.”
The travel ban allowed by the Supreme Court is less encompassing than the executive ordered signed by President Trump on March 6, which effectively banned everyone from the six targeted countries. The modified version allows visitors to come if they have jobs with U.S. companies or have been accepted for study or to lecture at U.S. universities. Visas will also be granted to foreign employees of U.S. media companies.
But an advisory cable sent to consular officials Wednesday said any relationship âmust be formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course, rather than for the purpose of evading the E.O.,â or executive order. Hotel reservations, paid or not, are not enough.
After the ruling, several nonprofit groups that help resettle refugees said they might claim a âbona fideâ relationship that could allow some people to be admitted who otherwise would not qualify. But the State Department cable advised consular officials that there are no exceptions for “an applicant who enters into a relationship simply to avoid the E.O.: for example, a nonprofit group devoted to immigration issues may not contact foreign nationals from the designated countries, add them to client lists, and then secure their entry by claiming injury from their inclusion in the E.O.â
Administration officials suggested they were open to modifying the new rules in the future, since the Supreme Court ruling was vague on how to handle refugees with mitigating circumstances.
Advocates and lawyers were quick to criticize the family list as capricious.
“President Trump’s directive might as well pull children out of the arms of their grandparents who will no longer be able to visit for the sole reason that they are Iranian,” said Shayan Modarres, a lawyer with the National Iranian American Council. “The president is supposed to protect American families, not rip them apart.”
âDefining close family to exclude grandparents, cousins, and other relatives defies common sense,â said Johnathan Smith, legal director of Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group that plans to send monitors to Dulles International Airport on Thursday night.
Cornell University Law School professor Stephen Yale-Loehr, who has written volumes of legal books on immigration law, said the travel ban would have barred many refugees who came to the United States years ago and have caused no problems. Among them are the Lost Boys of Sudan and children orphaned by famine and war.
âSimilarly, why can a stepsister visit the United States but not a grandmother?â he asked. âThe State Department should vet visa applicants on a case-by-case basis for terrorism concerns, not impose overly broad categories that prevent innocent people from coming to this country.â
The directive is certain to face more legal challenges, particularly as it affects refugees.
âWe have thousands upon thousands of people who are in various stages of the process,â said Eric Schwartz, head of Refugees International. âAs a result of this executive order, their lives are put on hold. Instead of offering hope and opportunity to people to thrive in this country, we’re giving them the back of our hands.â
Amnesty International called on Congress to overturn the travel ban and said it will dispatch monitors to airports to observe whether anyone is denied entry.
âSeparating families based on these definitions is simply heartless,â Naureen Shah, director of campaigns for Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. âIt further proves the callous and discriminatory nature of Trumpâs Muslim ban.â