Even though President Donald Trump’s travel ban has run afoul of the courts, the number of visas issued to people from six majority-Muslim countries targeted by the executive order appears to be slowing down dramatically.
Separately, refugee resettlement in the U.S. from February through May has also plummeted, according to CQ Roll Call’s review of data released by the State Department.
While the trend concerns immigration and refugee advocates, the drop suggests the administration may be able to slow down the flow of people from countries linked to terrorism without a travel ban that judges say discriminates on the basis of religion.
The Trump administration declined to answer questions about the visa trends, making it unclear whether the State Department is granting fewer applications or whether fewer people from the targeted countries are applying.
“I would imagine it’s both,” Justin Cox, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, said about possible reasons for the downturn. “If I were from one of those countries, I certainly wouldn’t feel welcome in the United States right now.”
At the same time, Cox said his organization has heard from immigration lawyers around the country who say that visas are being denied in cases where they previously would have been approved. That would suggest visa applicants are being evaluated differently in light of Trump’s two attempts to implement a temporary travel ban.
Greg Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Trump’s travel ban has turned off foreigners even though the revised executive order has not taken effect as it goes through federal courts.
“There’s a significant deterrent effect, whether from the travel ban or the administration’s rhetoric,” Chen said.
The revised version of Trump’s travel ban, which was signed March 6, would halt U.S. entry by most citizens of six majority-Muslim nations — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — and place a four-month moratorium on the admissions of refugees from around the world.
An earlier version of the ban, which Trump signed at the end of January but withdrew, would have also banned most Iraqis. Both versions were blocked by judges and the Supreme Court has been asked to reinstate the order.
There were 2,551 nonimmigrant visas issued to citizens from the six majority-Muslim countries for March and 2,013 in April, according to CQ Roll Call’s analysis. That compares to an average of 4,454 visas issued per month in fiscal 2016 to travelers from the six countries.
Overall, there were 907,166 visas issued in March to U.S.-bound travelers worldwide — a 5 percent increase from the fiscal 2016 monthly average of 865,124. In April, the State Department issued 735,004 visas — a 15 percent decline from last year’s average.
The State Department so far has only released visa data for those two months.
The decline in refugees is more evenly distributed, CQ Roll Call found. From February through May, the State Department admitted an average of 3,489 refugees per month. In fiscal 2016, the average was 7,083 refugees per month.
The United States has admitted 46,607 refugees in fiscal 2017 as of June 5, according to State Department figures, but roughly two-thirds arrived before Trump signed the first travel ban on Jan. 27.
Admissions of Syrian refugees, who are considered by the international community to be especially at risk, have particularly dwindled. Of the 6,225 Syrian refugees to arrive in the U.S. since Oct. 1, only 1,341 have come during Trump’s presidency.
In recent months, the State Department had been limiting the number of refugees admitted each week due to budget constraints, but the quotas have since been lifted, The New York Times reported in May.
On the campaign trail, Trump’s original call for a “total and complete shutdown on Muslims” gradually morphed into his support for “extreme vetting” of those seeking U.S. entry. He has argued his attempts at restricting entry into the country were written in the name of national security, saying an executive order is needed while new vetting procedures can be worked out.
But federal courts have blocked the president’s efforts on the grounds that they discriminate based on religion, citing Trump’s own words from the campaign trail.
Trump appears to have undercut his own case with statements on Twitter since the Justice Department asked the high court to weigh in.
“People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” Trump tweeted June 5.
People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders played down the rhetoric.
“Everybody wants to make it something different than [a] national security issue, and that’s exactly what it is,” she said later that day. “And that’s why the president’s so focused on pushing it forward in the strongest form possible.”
David Lapan, press secretary for the Homeland Security Department, said the DHS has implemented some new vetting procedures in accordance with a section of the March 6 order that was not affected by the courts.
“Section 5 allows us to continue to work on uniform vetting and screening procedures for all countries, including the six named in the second EO,” he said in an email, referring to the revised executive order. “We have made some changes under that section of the order and we’ve identified other possible improvements.”
Those changes have not been made public, Lapan said.
Meanwhile, the State Department is seeking approval to expand the scope of information that visa applicants must submit to include 15 years of travel, employment and residential information. Visa applications may also soon request the social media usernames an applicant used in the last five years.
Most of the information is already sought on visa applications, the State Department noted. But the government currently requires just five years’ worth of information.
At a June 6 Senate hearing, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told lawmakers the department is implementing new procedures while attempting to steer clear of legal trouble.
“We haven’t stopped. We’re just being very careful about not getting out in front of the court,” Kelly said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked why the travel ban is necessary at all if the DHS can still implement changes to the vetting procedures.
“If you’ve done it, then the case is moot,” she said. “The president can move on and tweet about something else.”
Gopol Ratnam contributed to this report.