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The US government’s own websites are adding to the chaos around Trump’s immigration order

Donald Trump Speaks With Australian PM Turnbull From The White House (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

With a stroke of a pen, Donald Trump has radically revamped America’s immigration policy — banning both refugees and nationals from seven countries (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Sudan) from entering the US.

Yet you wouldn’t know that from what the US government is actually saying.

The White House’s website has virtually no information on how this policy actually works. When White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus went on Face the Nation to clarify a key part of the policy — its effect on green card holders — he ended up twisting himself into knots.

"We didn't overrule the Department of Homeland Security, as far as green card holders moving forward, it doesn't affect them," Priebus said at the beginning of the spot. Then, later in the interview, he directly contradicted that line: "Well, of course it does [apply to green card holders]. If you're traveling back and forth, you're going to be subjected to further screening."

Hop over to the homepage for the US Refugee Admissions program at the State Department, which has been suspended entirely by Trump’s order, and you find nothing. Not a single mention of Trump’s order, and a fair amount of propaganda about how much the US cares about refugee resettlement.

“The United States has long been a global leader in resettling the world’s most vulnerable people,” the page says, without the slightest hint of irony.

The US Citizenship and Immigration homepage is similarly devoid of any reference to Trump’s order. The most visible item on the page is a big banner image notifying Somali citizens residing in the US that a program allowing them to stay in the country has been temporarily extended. Again, no hint of irony here.

What little information you can find about Trump’s executive order from the agencies tasked with actually implementing it is incomplete, confusing, and occasionally contradictory with what some members of the Trump administration have said.

This isn’t like when the Trump administration took office and immediately scrapped the White House page on climate change. It’s a testament to the amateur-hour nature of this sweeping executive order, one that reportedly was not vetted by the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel. It also speaks to just how radical a change in US policy this is — one that invalidates longstanding US policy with seemingly little thought.

Most official information portals are useless — especially for refugees

USCIS homepage as of 2:15 pm Eastern Sunday January 29.

I spent Sunday morning going to various different US government websites with responsibility for immigration policy — the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the specific embassy websites for the countries singled out by Trump’s executive order. My goal was to figure out what someone who might be affected by Trump’s executive order could find out from official sources, either in English or their native language, about either the justification for the order or how it applies to them.

The answer was very, very little.

The State Department is tasked with handling visas, and so it would be anyone’s natural first stop. But there is no mention of the executive order on State’s homepage or official Twitter account; its last tweet was a note about the Chinese New Year.

If you go specifically to its page on visas, all that you can find is a brief notification at the top of the page:

Under the Executive Order on Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals signed on January 27, 2017, visa issuance to nationals of the countries of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen has been suspended effective immediately until further notification. We will announce any other changes affecting travelers to the United States as soon as that information is available.

This has no details on how the executive order works on critical issues, like whether this new policy affects dual nationals from targeted countries (an Iranian-Canadian, for example). Nor does it contain links to another, more detailed page.

Most importantly, it doesn’t mention anything about the refugee portion of the order. There’s no information there, at all.

The same holds true on Homeland Security’s site. The only information I could find about the executive order came from in a departmental press release about the ACLU’s lawsuit against it. In the release, DHS defends the ban as applying to only a small number of people — but does virtually nothing to explain who it actually applies to.

“President Trump’s Executive Order affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is a first step toward reestablishing control over America's borders and national security,” the statement reads. “Prohibited travel remains prohibited.”

This is the closest thing to a justification or argument in favor of the ban I could find outside of the White House, and it’s not much of one. It doesn’t address the central criticisms of the executive order — that it targets a specific religion and puts vulnerable people in harm’s way — and even manages to imply that the ban will be expanded.

Perhaps most importantly, it fails at the basic task of a government agency’s statement, explaining what the actual policy does. “Prohibited travel remains prohibited” is a useless tautology.

And that’s it, as far as statements relating to the refugee portion of the executive order.

There’s not even a mention of the policy on the US government websites for America’s refugee policy, either the one managed by State or DHS. Those have detailed instructions on how to apply for refugee status in the United States — guidance that clearly no longer applies, at least for the next 90 days.

If you just read those pages, in short, you’d think the United States was still admitting refugees.

Moreover, critical details of the policy still remain unanswered. How does this order affect, say, refugees who are currently en route to the United States? What about a refugee who has been admitted to the United States and resides here, but is currently visiting a relative abroad? Could they come back?

It’s been nearly 48 hours since Trump signed the executive order, and the US government still has no consistent line on what it’s doing on refugees. The information that’s out there is incomplete at best, and directly contradictory with current policy at worst.

Do you come from one of the seven countries? The US government is not here to help.

Turkmen children
Syrian refugees.
Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

The information available to citizens of the seven countries whose citizens are banned from entry is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the relevant official US government websites — the embassy page for the impacted countries where the US maintains a diplomatic presence and a “virtual portal” for those that it doesn’t — have more information than the general websites or the resources for refugees. But others are worse than useless.

Four out of the seven — Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen — have no mention of the ban on entry whatsoever. The Yemeni site is actually somewhat dangerous. It’s not only telling Yemeni citizens that the United States is still accepting visa applications from them, but actively encouraging them to travel to a foreign country to apply (the situation in Yemen has long been too chaotic for US diplomats to conduct regular business in).

“The U.S. Department of State is scheduling immigrant visa appointments for Yemeni applicants at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti,” the site explains, despite the fact that visa admission from Yemen has been suspended. “Interviews are being scheduled in order of the date the case became documentarily qualified and eligible for scheduling.”

The US government portal to Sudan is more helpful. It has a big warning telling Sudanese citizens of the change in policy, with detailed information on how the executive order might affect them.

On January 27, 2017, visa issuance to aliens from the countries of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen has been suspended effective immediately until further notification. If you are a national, or dual national, 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 your appointment as we will not be able to proceed with your visa interview. Please note that certain travel for official governmental purposes, related to official business at or on behalf of designated international organizations, on behalf of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or by certain officials is not subject to this suspension.

The embassies in Iraq and Iran are similarly detailed. The embassy to Iran has a lengthy statement on the impact of the order on everything from dual nationals to the visa waiver program (here, in Farsi).

But the Farsi statement also illustrates the major PR disaster this executive order represents. It’s very difficult to accurately describe the logic behind the administration’s order without somewhat implying that the US government believes that Iranians should be considered terrorists until proven otherwise.

“This executive order, with the goal of opportunity for appropriate study and the creation of indexes for preventing the influence of terrorist or criminal foreign citizen, will apply a 90 day ban on the entrance of the of citizens of the special specified countries,” the statement reads.

Imagine how you would feel, as one of Iran’s 70 million citizens, if you read that page and assumed that Washington was applying that reasoning to you and your loved ones.

When the details of this policy are rendered accurately, then, it’s less confusing — but also more offensive, and thus more damaging to America’s image in some pretty vital countries.

The key takeaway: Chaos reigns

President Trump Speaks With German Chancellor Angela Merkel On The Telephone
Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The avalanche of confusing and at times outright misleading information on official US government websites speaks to just how poorly the Trump administration’s planning was on this issue. Relevant agencies were clearly not given enough advance notice to change the information on their sites or provide useful, detailed guidance to the people they’re supposed to serve. The fact that they still don’t have good information at least suggests that, even internally, people just have no idea what the actual policy does.

This dovetails with reports from inside the Trump administration. CNN’s Evan Perez and Pamela Brown report that the order was not vetted by the White House Office of Legal Counsel, standard practice to make sure that such measures comply with the law. The Department of Homeland Security, per Perez and Brown, only “saw the final details shortly before the order was finalized.”

This led to deep confusion about how the order actually applied. On the key issue of people with green cards, Homeland Security’s understanding of the order directly contradicted the White House’s. Per Perez and Brown, chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and top policy aide Stephen Miller simply overrode the agency:

Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen -- did not apply to people who with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders.

The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President's inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Their decision held that, on a case by case basis, DHS could allow green card holders to enter the US.

And then, of course, came Priebus’s confusion on this point. Even key members of the White House aren’t really sure what its executive order does. So how on earth could the agencies tasked with administering it even start?

Trump’s policy is a radical revision of American immigration policy. Since World War II, the United States has taken in more refugees than any other nation on earth. There are a number of jobs inside the US government devoted entirely to bringing refugees in, as well as helping people from the seven targeted nations enter the country.

Changing course so dramatically, and so quickly, requires incredibly precise guidance. Staffers need to know what they’re doing, how the policy affects their jobs, and what they need to tell the public and the people they work with. Otherwise, the vast machinery of state will not do what the Trump administration wants (assuming they have actually worked out what they want).

It’s clear that this isn’t happening. The lack of agency information on how the executive order works, then, isn’t an accident. It’s indicative of a fundamental incompetence at the heart of the new White House.

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