Refugee advocates decry Trump travel ban rollout’s impact on families

By Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Immigrant and refugee groups assailed the Trump administration on Thursday over its rollout of a long-delayed travel ban, saying it had defined too narrowly who should be exempted from the ban targeting travelers from six Muslim-majority countries and all refugees.

The advocates cited language barring grandparents, grandchildren and fiancés from obtaining visas to travel while the ban is in place, despite a Supreme Court ruling this week that people with a “close familial relationship” should not be included in the ban. The ruling allowed parts of President Donald Trump’s March 6 executive order to go into effect after lower courts had blocked it.

The ban takes effect at 8 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT Friday) along with a 120-day ban on refugees. Grandparents, grandchildren and fiancés of people in the United States will be barred from getting U.S. visas during the 90-day period of the ban, according to guidelines issued by the State Department.

The new guidance for travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, would also prevent the entry of refugees who do not have close family in the United States.

“They’re supposed to be interested in saving as many refugee lives as possible. Instead they’ve come up with a very narrow interpretation that effectively suspends the refugee program except for those with very close family connections,” said Chris George, director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a refugee resettlement agency in New Haven, Connecticut.

The court exempted from the ban travelers and refugees with a “bona fide relationship” with a person or entity in the United States from the ban. As an example, the court said those with a “close familial relationship” with someone in the United States would be covered.

Karen Tumlin, legal director of the National Immigration Law Center, said the administration’s guidance “would slam the door shut on so many who have waited for months or years to be reunited with their families.”

Asked how barring grandparents or grandchildren makes the United States safer, a senior U.S. official did not directly answer, instead pointing to Trump’s guidance to pause “certain travel while we review our security posture.”

The U.S. government expects “things to run smoothly” and “business as usual” at U.S. ports of entry, another senior U.S. official told reporters.

The administration also said that refugees who have agreements with resettlement agencies but not close family in the United States would not be exempted from the ban, likely sharply limiting the number of refugees allowed entry in coming months.

Refugee resettlement agencies had expected that their formal links with would-be refugees would qualify as “bona fide.” But U.S. officials said on Thursday that, for now, that sort of relationship was not enough to qualify refugees for entry.

The administration’s decision likely means that few refugees beyond a 50,000-cap set by Trump will be allowed into the country this year. A U.S. official said that as of Wednesday evening, 49,009 refugees had been allowed into the country this fiscal year. The State Department said refugees scheduled to arrive through July 6 could still enter.

Trump first announced a temporary travel ban on Jan. 27, calling it a counterterrorism measure to allow time to develop better security vetting. The order caused chaos at airports, as officials scrambled to enforce it before being blocked by courts. Opponents argued that the measure discriminated against Muslims and that there was no security rationale for it.

A revised version of the ban was also halted by courts.

The State Department guidance, distributed to all U.S. diplomatic posts on Wednesday evening and obtained by Reuters, fleshed out the Supreme Court’s ruling about people who have a “bona fide” relationship with an individual or entity in the United States.

It defined a close familial relationship as being a parent, spouse, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling, including step-siblings and other step-family relations.

A department cable said grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, fiancés, “and any other ‘extended’ family members” are not considered close family.

The guidelines also said that workers with offers of employment from a company in the United States or a lecturer addressing U.S. audiences would be exempt from the ban, but that arrangements such as hotel reservation would not be considered bona fide relationships.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Lawrence Hurley and Susan Heavey in Washington and Gabriella Borter in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)