Trump courts new controversy with travel ban expansion

The Trump administration is expected to formally announce the addition of several countries to its travel ban next week, prompting questions about its timing and the rationale for which nations will be added to the list.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE told reporters in Switzerland that he was preparing to roll out the expanded policy in a few days, coinciding with the three-year anniversary of when he first announced his original ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries.

The Supreme Court upheld a version of the administration’s travel ban in a 5-4 ruling in 2018, establishing that the president held substantial leeway over immigration law. 

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“We’re adding a couple of countries to it. We have to be safe. Our country has to be safe,” Trump said during a press conference at the World Economic Forum. “You see what’s going on in the world. Our country has to be safe. So we have a very strong travel ban, and we’ll be adding a few countries to it.”

Trump would not say which countries will be added, but he is said to be considering Nigeria, Belarus, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania.

The original travel ban — announced a week into Trump’s first term — prompted nationwide protests. The addition of several more countries would likely spark similar demonstrations and swift lawsuits. Trump could also alienate voters by doubling down on one of his most controversial policies at the outset of an election year and in the middle of a Senate impeachment trial.

Specifics of the expanded ban are still unknown, and officials cautioned no decisions were final about which countries to include. That uncertainty has only raised more questions about the rationale behind such a consequential decision.

One former administration official questioned why the government would wait until the anniversary of the original travel ban to announce the new restrictions if it were a matter of national security.

John CampbellJohn Bayard Taylor CampbellTrump courts new controversy with travel ban expansion High stakes in Nigeria's elections for impoverished citizenry — and US interests North Carolina county school board ends spanking policy MORE, a career foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, called the list of countries “baffling.”

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“The collection of states don’t seem to have much in common,” he said. “The one thing that may connect them all are issues of airport security.”

Under the existing travel ban, countries must comply with certain security requirements such as established counterterrorism policies and biometrics standards in order to participate in U.S. immigration programs. Those that don’t comply face the risk of being added to the list, while those that update their practices to meet U.S. requirements could be removed from the ban.

“For a small number of countries that lack either the will or the capability to adhere to these criteria, travel restrictions may become necessary to mitigate threats,” acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfHillicon Valley: Malicious emails spike amid coronavirus | Real ID deadline delayed one year | Trump officials to limit Huawei's chip access Travel industry hails REAL ID extension, says may need to be longer Real ID deadline delayed one year amid coronavirus pandemic MORE said in a speech last week highlighting the need for foreign countries to help vet those entering the U.S.

DHS did not respond to a request for comment, but officials said it’s possible countries under consideration may have been given advance notice so they could try and come into compliance with U.S. standards.

Embassies in Washington, D.C., of the seven countries under consideration did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill, though former government officials said any restrictions on travel could threaten diplomatic relations.

The potential inclusion of Nigeria was particularly confusing to foreign policy experts and former diplomats. It is Africa’s most populous country, and hundreds of thousands of Nigerian immigrants live in the U.S.

“Were a meaningful travel restriction put in place, the impact on Nigerian opinion of the United States would be very bad,” Campbell said. “The people who actually run Nigeria, the movers and shakers, all value enormously the ability to travel. They want to go to Disney World, they want to go shopping on Rodeo Drive. Many of them have property here. The Nigerian establishment would really resist.”

Politico reported that the new policy might not apply to all citizens of any country added, and could, for example, apply only to certain types of visas. Legal experts questioned how such a selective policy would work, arguing it would be difficult to justify why certain visa categories qualify for a travel restriction but others don’t.

The new policy is certain to draw lawsuits from attorneys general in blue states, just as the original ban did. But the Supreme Court’s decision to narrowly uphold the ban two years ago may lend Trump latitude to build on that policy.

Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, said the White House could bolster the legitimacy of the policy by showing it reviews which countries to include on a semi-regular basis.

He also noted the inclusion of a country like Belarus could help blunt claims that the policy is rooted in Islamophobia.

“He obviously likes the symbolism of releasing this on the third anniversary of the travel ban, which was not a very successful rollout,” Blackman said. “But Trump thinks this is a good idea and that’s what he wants to do.”

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Trump on Jan. 27, 2017 announced a travel ban that blocked nationals of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States. The countries included in the original policy were Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

The rollout led to mass confusion about its implementation before a lower court issued an injunction in the face of numerous lawsuits. Massive protests spontaneously popped up at airports across the country in opposition to the ban, and lawyers camped out at terminals to offer pro bono assistance for foreigners who were detained upon arrival in the U.S. 

The Supreme Court in June 2018 upheld a version of the ban that applied to Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen, delivering a victory for Trump.

“The Travel Ban has been profoundly successful in protecting our Country and raising the security baseline around the world,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “While there are no new announcements at this time, common-sense and national security both dictate that if a country wants to fully participate in U.S. immigration programs, they should also comply with all security and counter-terrorism measures — because we do not want to import terrorism or any other national security threat into the United States.”

The decision to publicize an extension of the ban with Election Day less than 10 months away reflects Trump’s willingness to lean into immigration as his signature issue, even as public polling shows it has been intensely divisive.

The White House has for months pursued stricter asylum rules that force Central American migrants to return to their home countries if they pass through Mexico en route to the U.S. border.

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DHS earlier this month held a photo op to tout its 100th mile of border wall built during the Trump administration, a signature promise Trump touts at every campaign rally.

The administration is also reportedly planning to issue new rules targeting “birth tourism,” making it more difficult for pregnant women to come to the U.S. on a tourist visa.

Laura Kelly contributed