The abrupt rollout of President Trump’s immigration executive order over the weekend caused utter chaos at airports around the country. That chaos might calm down eventually — but the executive order won’t stop rupturing immigrants’ lives.
White House officials and some congressional Republicans appear to have settled on the line that the problems with the immigration order were a matter of temporary “inconvenience” to some small number of people. That's only narrowly true.
After the first few days, the government’s actions to prevent people from coming to the US will be invisible to most Americans. They’ll happen overseas, or deep in government offices. But that’s not going to make them any less real.
Most people affected by the ban can, and will, be kept off US-bound planes
Over the weekend, according to internal Department of Homeland Security documents obtained by Reuters and the Daily Beast, 200 to 250 people were detained at US airports after having flown into the country on what, a week ago, would have been valid visas. Those are the immigrants who quickly became the subject of massive protests and hastily called court hearings, and whom federal judges ultimately ordered released.
But another 348 were prevented from getting into the US entirely.
On Friday night, the federal government sent guidance to airlines, telling them that nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries would no longer be allowed into the US — and that, therefore, they shouldn’t be allowed on US-bound planes, either.
And airlines (despite some confusion) complied. They had to. Under federal law, it’s illegal for an airline to allow anyone to board a US-bound flight who doesn’t have a valid passport or visa. Airlines that don’t properly screen their passengers are subject to a $3,000 fine for each person they improperly bring to the US in addition to other penalties.
So when the Trump administration told airlines (as United Airlines put it) that “the U.S. Department of State has revoked immigrant and non-immigrant visas for travelers to the United States from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen,” United and other airlines had to refuse to let them board.
Obviously, over the weekend, that didn’t always work. Airlines (like the federal government) were confused about whether green card holders were covered by the executive order. And countries including the UK, Australia, and Israel put out vague, inconclusive, or simply contradictory statements about how the order would affect their citizens who were also nationals of a blacklisted country.
But the federal government has been trying to clear up the points of confusion causing the most obvious disruptions. On Sunday, it declared that green cards will be a “dispositive” factor for admission to the US — airlines are free to let green card holders board. And on Tuesday, it clarified that dual nationals would be admitted as long as the passport they presented when they came to the US didn’t come from a country on the blacklist.
A ruling by a federal judge in Massachusetts tried to get around this, by requiring airlines to let people board flights to Logan Airport in Boston even if they were from countries covered by the ban. (The other court rulings over the weekend applied only to people who had arrived in US airports.) But airlines can only let people board if they have valid visas — and the State Department has already revoked the visas of everyone from banned countries. The front line of enforcing the ban is at the departure gate.
People currently applying for visas aren’t even allowed to enter embassies for their interviews
People who were issued visas before Trump’s ban went into effect are one thing. People currently in the process of applying for visas are in even worse shape. The State Department and Department of Homeland Security have basically put a freeze on granting any visas from the countries affected by the ban.
Guidance sent out to US Citizenship and Immigration Services over the weekend said that agents were not allowed to “take final action” on any application from a citizen or national of one of the blacklisted countries. And while USCIS field offices here in the US are allowed to conduct interviews as part of the visa screening process even while the ban is in place, consular officers abroad are not.
A State Department advisory, posted the night the ban was signed, warns anyone from a blacklisted country (emphasis in the original):
If you are a citizen of one of these countries, please do not schedule a visa appointment or pay any visa fees at this time. If you already have an appointment scheduled, please DO NOT ATTEND. You will not be permitted entry to the Embassy/Consulate.
The text of the executive order itself allows the federal government issue visas to blacklisted countries “on a case-by-case basis.” But neither department appears to have given agents a way to actually do that. And besides, it’s hard to know in which cases to grant visas to people outside the US when you won’t even let them in the door for an interview.
Refugees will be allowed in this week — but probably not afterward
There is one respect in which the Trump administration is willing to use its discretion to let people into the US despite the executive order: refugees who were already scheduled to come live in the US this week.
According to Reuters, the Trump administration has approved waivers for 872 refugees to be resettled in the US this week — refugees who were already scheduled to arrive and would have been left in limbo under the text of the executive order. Given that the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees — the primary referrer of refugees to the US — said in a statement that “over 800 refugees were set to make the United States their home,” this could mean that the Trump administration is allowing most of the refugees it had accepted for this week to come.
The Trump administration’s willingness to let in refugees screened under the old process — while claiming that process could allow terrorists to sneak into the United States — kind of undermines its argument that the executive order is essential to national security. But it allows 872 people who had already given up housing and jobs in the countries where they were staying to follow through on their plans to rebuild their lives in the US. When the Bush administration paused refugee admittance after 9/11, thousands of people found themselves homeless and in limbo; the Trump administration is saving at least several hundred from that fate.
But they might be the last ones. The Trump administration isn’t promising to issue any more waivers; it’s arguing that the refugees resettled this week are exempt from the ban because they counted as “in transit,” but that might not apply to refugees due to be resettled next week or next month.
And even after the 120-day ban on refugees is lifted, admitting 872 refugees now will mean admitting 872 fewer refugees later. The Trump administration’s order lowers the refugee cap for the fiscal year to 50,000 — meaning that fewer than 20,000 refugees will be allowed to enter the US between now and the end of September. (The Obama administration was on pace to allow nearly 80,000 over that time.)
The tens of thousands of refugees who might have been allowed to settle in the US, and now will not be able to, aren’t immediately visible. They’re not showing up at airports and demanding lawyers. But the human cost of the executive order, no matter how smoothly it’s applied, will remain.