Washington — The Trump administration spent months hashing out new travel restrictions on more than a half-dozen countries, determined to avoid the chaos that accompanied President Donald Trump's first travel ban.
But critics say it's a mystery why some countries are included and they believe Venezuela and North Korea were added to provide legal and political cover for what they say remains a "Muslim ban".
The new restrictions covering citizens of Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — and some Venezuelan government officials and their families — are to go into effect from 18 October 2017.
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As for the previous version, which expired on Sunday 24 September, the Supreme Court on Monday, 25 September announced it would cancel arguments scheduled for next month to give both sides time to consider the implications of the new one. They have until 5 October to weigh in.
Shocking inclusion of Chad
The inclusion of Chad, which has been a major player in the fight against Boko Haram, raised eyebrows. In its proclamation, the administration says that while Chad is "an important and valuable counter-terrorism partner," its government does not adequately share public safety and terrorism-related information. It also noted several terrorists groups are active in the country.
Chad's government says it learned "with astonishment" of the US government's decision and could not understand the "official reasons for this decision which contrasts with Chad's constant efforts and commitments in the fight against terrorism at regional and global levels."
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Chad's government called for a better appreciation of the situation and for Trump to reconsider the decision which it says "undermines the image of Chad and the good relations between the two countries."
It says it was open to discussions on strengthening collaborations with the US.
Chad is the headquarters for a multinational force set up to fight Nigeria-based Boko Haram Islamic extremists.
What Gulf airlines say
The three major long-haul airlines of the Gulf say they are aware of the new travel restrictions.
Dubai-based Emirates says "With regards to entry requirements for travel to/ from the USA, Emirates continues to take guidance provided to us by the US Customs and Border Protection."
In Abu Dhabi, long-haul carrier Etihad says "The airline continues to accept nationals with valid travel documentation from the listed countries. Acceptance, as per standard procedure, is subject to checks completed by US authorities at the pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi International Airport."
Doha-based Qatar Airways also says its operations continued as normal.
The travel ban, as well as the since-lifted ban on laptops in Mideast airliner cabins, has hurt Gulf carriers. Emirates has cut routes to the US.
The Gulf airlines also have faced stiff resistance from US airlines, which accuse the Mideast carriers of being unfairly subsidised by their governments. The Gulf carriers strongly dispute that.
New ban to attract new legal challenges
Trump's efforts to restrict entry into the US have been the subject of lawsuits almost since the moment he announced the first travel ban in January, and the latest version is sure to attract new legal challenges — though experts are divided on how they might fare.
Avideh Moussavian, senior policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, says she saw little difference between the earlier bans and the new policy, despite the addition of two non-Muslim countries.
"What remains the same is the discriminatory core of these bans which were always designed to exclude Muslims from the United States," Moussavian says.
But Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration expert at Cornell University, says the latest version is narrower and better explained, including about how the government decided which countries to target.
"The third time may be the charm for President Trump's immigration travel ban," Yale-Loehr says.
Restrictions based on new factors
Administration officials have stressed the latest version is the result of a lengthy process, and based on an objective assessment of each country's security situation and willingness to share information with the US.
The restrictions are based on new baseline factors such as whether countries issue electronic passports with biometric information to prevent fraud and report information about potential terror threats. That baseline was shared with countries across the globe, and they were given 50 days to comply.
Those that failed to satisfy the "objective process of measuring whether countries met the baseline" are now subject to new restrictions.
Three basic categories of the new ban
The countries that ultimately were included on the list fall into three basic categories, officials say.
— Some, like Iran and Syria, pose legitimate national security threats to the US and refuse to cooperate with US consular investigations.
— Another category includes countries like Yemen and Libya, where local authorities have sought to be as cooperative as possible but lack full control over their territory and the basic ability to provide the information the US wants. In those cases, officials say, the US tried to stress that inclusion on the list wasn't an indictment of those nations' commitment to fighting terrorism.
— The final category includes countries like North Korea and Venezuela whose citizens don't necessarily pose a major threat to the US but where the administration wanted to send a message that the government's broader actions are unacceptable.
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Critics say the inclusion of some countries appeared to be largely symbolic and intended to combat perceptions that the ban is targeting Muslims.
New visa sanctions on Venezuela
The new visa sanctions on Venezuela, for instance, apply only to officials from five government security agencies and their immediate families. Still, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro labeled the move a form of "political and psychological terrorism."
His foreign ministry issued a statement saying that the travel restrictions violate the values of the United Nations charter and international law and are part of a continuing effort by the US to oust Maduro from power.
The ministry says it is considering "all necessary measures" to defend Venezuela's sovereignty and national interest.
The Trump administration says Venezuela's government has been uncooperative in verifying whether its citizens represent national security threats and says the travel restrictions target officials at agencies and ministries responsible for screening.
The Trump administration also calls for Venezuelan nationals who are already visa holders to be subject to "appropriate additional measures" to ensure their traveller information remains current.
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The restrictions on North Korea will have little impact because so few of its citizens visit the United States. North Korea's authoritarian government doesn't allow most of its 24 million people to travel abroad, except in special cases such as for jobs that bring in foreign currency or for participation in sporting events. According the State Department, in 2016 the US issued just nine immigrant visas and 52 non-immigrant visas to citizens of North Korea.
The Homeland Security Department largely left it up to US embassies in potentially affected areas to gather information about whether their host countries were supplying needed information and cooperating enough with authorities to enable the US to properly vet citizens.
Some embassies pushed back to try to get their host countries removed from the list, concerned that inclusion would negatively affect relations between the US and those countries, administration officials say.
In some cases, the embassies sought to explain to Homeland Security that the host country was already cooperating and providing the information the administration says it needed. The officials who commented weren't authorised to discuss the deliberations with reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Turkey was one of the countries that the administration considered adding to the list, but ultimately decided against, one US official says.
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David Heyman, who served as a Homeland Security official in the Obama administration, says that relative to Trump's first two travel ban attempts, the latest order "seems much more rigorous and with the greater review and interest in an interagency policy." But he says the most pressing threat remains home-grown extremists.
"If we're looking to protect America from the terrorist threat, which is the motive behind this order, this continues to miss the point," Heyman says.
The American Civil Liberties Union says in a statement: "President Trump's original sin of targeting Muslims cannot be cured by throwing other countries onto his enemies list."
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