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Trump's travel ban on hold, but stricter vetting may be having similar effect

FILE: Muslims and supporters gather on the steps of Borough Hall in Brooklyn, New York, during a protest in February against President Trump's temporary travel ban.

Federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland this week blocked President Trump’s third attempt at a travel ban, but they did not block all of Trump's travel restrictions.

One policy, closer scrutiny of certain visa applications, has been in effect since a March executive order and memo, leading officials to require additional documentation from some applicants on their histories and use of social media.

It's not clear if the policy has contributed to a drop in visas issued worldwide, but they have declined between March and August, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of State.

Brentwood immigration attorney John Khosravi said he’s seeing delays in the processing of his clients' visa applications. The wait times have had a chilling effect, he said, with clients calling to inquire whether their relatives should even try to apply for permission to enter the country.

"There are just more and more people that have to undergo background checks, and they don't necessarily hire more people to do the background checks," Khosravi said. This has caused a slowdown in the system, he said, that "gets to the goal, which is slowing down immigration to the United States.” 

Trump's March 6 directive for increased vetting states the focus should be on preventing the entry of foreign nationals who may "aid, support, or commit violent, criminal or terrorist acts," and to ensure proper collection of "all information necessary to rigorously evaluate all grounds of inadmissibility or deportability, or grounds for the denial of other immigration benefits."

Since May, visa applicants who consular officials deem worthy of extra scrutiny are required to submit an additional form detailing 15 years' worth of their travel history, work history and social media use. The requirement was put in place on an emergency basis, according to the State Department, and is in the process of becoming a permanent policy.

State Department numbers show a decline in immigrant and non-immigrant visas to the U.S. issued abroad between March and August. Immigrant visas dropped from 51,657 in March to 45,089 in August. Non-immigrant visas, including tourist and H-1B skilled worker visas, declined as well — from 907,166 in March to 832,597 in August.
The Trump administration is not the first to call for heavier vetting of visa applications. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Bush and Obama administrations have put other restrictions in place.

"There was already extreme vetting that started during President Obama's time, which was called administrative processing," Khosravi said. "If someone got hit with administrative processing, their file could get held up before their visas were issued for a few days, a few months — or more than a couple of years." 

But immigrant advocates say the vetting under President Trump is weighted against immigrants and visitors from certain parts of the world, like the Middle East.

"What we've seen is it is impacting people from Muslim-majority countries," said Farida Chehata, managing attorney for immigrant rights with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim. "I don't think this is a secret to anybody."

Chehata said her organization has received phone calls from people whose relatives have decided not to come to the United States to visit because they fear they'll encounter problems or harassment.

"What we are seeing ... based on the people that have called, is people that have completely canceled their trips since the first executive order was passed, and have decided not to come to the United States," she said. She added some U.S. citizens who are Muslim or are of Middle Eastern descent have been reluctant to leave the country.

Peter Nuñez, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego, favors the travel restrictions and visa applicant vetting. He argues they are not discriminatory. The delays are understandable since it takes more work to check individuals' backgrounds from places where there is war or other issues, he said. 

"How are you going to check criminal histories in a country that has no centralized criminal database?" Nuñez asked. "It takes whatever amount of time it takes to get the information to verify the eligibility of the applicant."

“People who are today complaining have forgotten where we were before 9/11,” Nuñez added.

The court orders on the third and latest travel ban partially blocked a proclamation last month that aimed to suspend or restrict immigration and travel from Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia, all Muslim-majority countries. The courts' rulings allowed new restrictions affecting two non-Muslim countries, North Korea and Venezuela, to take effect.

Federal officials said the countries on the most recent travel ban list were chosen because they did not cooperate with the U.S. on issues like counterterrorism. The decision to include them under travel restrictions was made after a review of nearly 200 countries, according to officials.

The Trump administration is expected to appeal the court orders blocking the travel ban and the cases are likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.