Trump’s new travel ban holds individuals hostage in ‘enemy’ regimes

With North Korea and Venezuela added, the modified "Muslim ban" still fails as a tool of foreign policy.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. CREDIT: Richard Drew/AP Photos
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. CREDIT: Richard Drew/AP Photos

President Donald Trump’s latest version of the travel ban, announced on Sunday, has already been harshly criticized by civil rights and immigrant rights groups. It also brings the Trump administration’s foreign policy shortcomings into sharp focus.

The new proclamation indefinitely restricts travel from five of the countries listed on the original ban — Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia — adding Chad and North Korea, in addition to Venezuelan government officials and their families to the list.

During his speech before the U.N. General Assembly last week, Trump took aim at Iran — his long-time bête noire — as well as North Korea and Venezuela, two other countries he has slapped with sanctions and threatened with military action. Less than a week later, both of those countries were included on a travel ban list, even though, as Reuters reports, at least in the case of North Korea, “Only nine North Koreans immigrated to the United States in 2016 and 100 were granted non-immigrant visas.”

With a combination of tough talk and military exercises, the Trump administration has heightened tensions with North Korea to historic levels. On Monday, North Korea’s foreign minister said his government saw U.S. actions as a “declaration of war,” and threatened “countermeasures.”


“Trying to read some sort of master-plan logic into Donald Trump’s various initiatives is challenging,” said Steven Weber, professor of political science at UC Berkeley. “These feel like two very different strands of an initiative that might not have been carefully integrated together.”

How effective are travel bans as tools of foreign policy and diplomacy?

“Not all diplomacy is about improving conversation and building bridges — sometimes diplomacy is also about imposing costs. In that context, is this a good way to build bridges and reach out to people? Obviously not,” said Weber. “Is it a way to impose costs? Not really…It certainly imposes costs on individuals. And if diplomacy is imposing costs on a regime, you want to do that without harming individuals,” said Weber.

He thinks the lumping together of these countries on a travel ban list might be a case of the Trump administration needing to follow up the “bombast” of his U.N. speech “with something — anything.”

And while Trump has tied the ban to national security concerns, Weber said it’s quite difficult to prove that the ban is directly related to added security.


“If you take the administration at its word, and you believe that there are terrorist organizations that have tried to insert mini sleeper-cells into refugee populations in places like Syria or Iraq, and that they want to use that as a means of getting dangerous people into the United States, then you could argue that cutting off immigration or visas from those places actually would be effective,” said Weber.

“It’s impossible to prove a negative in this regard…Most people would argue that the numbers don’t justify it, in terms of false positives versus false negatives,” he said.

Trump’s previous travel ban was widely referred to as the Muslim ban, as it only included Muslim-majority countries and was in line with his campaign promise to keep Muslims out of the United States. Sudan, previously on the list, is now excluded from the ban, which faced several legal challenges in previous iterations.

“Because the court struck down the travel ban on the basis of the argument that there was a religious discrimination component to it, if you simply add some other ‘enemy countries’ — whether or not there’s a reason for it — now it’s harder for it to argue that it’s a Muslim ban, because now it has broader foreign policy implications,” said Weber.

The only impact adding countries such as North Korea or Venezuela will have, he added, is to “smuggle in” the original Muslim-majority countries onto the travel ban.


In June, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a limited version of the ban to be in place, with the court set to hear arguments over the original version of the Muslim ban on October 10. But on Monday, the court said it will not hear previously scheduled oral arguments challenging the travel ban.

Indeed, refugee and immigration advocates refer to this latest version as a Muslim ban, as bulk of countries affected are still Muslim-majority countries and the addition of North Koreans and officials from Venezuela seems arbitrary. Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told Reuters:

This is still a Muslim ban. They simply added three additional countries. Of those countries, Chad is majority Muslim, travel from North Korea is already basically frozen and the restrictions on Venezuela only affect government officials on certain visas.

Naureen Shah, senior director of campaigns at Amnesty International USA, called Trump’s “America First” rallying cry “a horrific kind of logic,” —  the kind that leaves people to die in a burning house, she said.

“It’s a knowing indifference. If we take him seriously, he understands what these people are facing if they remain where they are and has decided to close U.S. borders to them…and the consequences be damned.”

The bigger picture is the travel ban in combination with the more specific ban on refugees that has rights groups such as Amnesty International worried.

The idea that a government that a person might be running away from would, under Trump’s new proclamation, have to cooperate with that escape is “a very perverse set up” said Shah, who wonders, for instance, what the incentive would be of the Syrian government to vet a person trying to flee the civil war there — especially given that so many people fleeing have had family members targeted and killed by the President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

“They are held hostage by their government’s own unwillingness to provide information to the U.S.,” she said, adding that she’s also concerned about the “domino effect” on other governments following the Trump administration’s example. She points out that in the first six months of 2017, there’s been a nearly 60 percent drop in global refugee resettlement over the same period last year.

Human Rights First, the outfit whose research Shah cited, lays the blame directly at the feet of the Trump administration:

In the six months since the initial January 27 order was issued, that order and its successor have had a devastating impact not only on the resettlement of refugees to the United States but also on the protection of the lives of refugees around the world, as well as on U.S. national security, foreign policy interests, and global leadership.

An additional issue, said Shah, is the level of secrecy about the basis for basis for determining which countries end up on the list.

“There’s a level of secrecy that is envisioned to continue, if you kind of read the fine print, about how countries can even get off the list,” she said. Additionally, there’s not a lot of information on how individuals in certain circumstances might be processed.

“This is a much more lengthy set of documents than what we got from the administration the first time around, but there’s a lot that has been left unsaid, so we just don’t know,” said Shah, adding that this secrecy is not unique to the Trump administration. Still, she’s worried about the impact this ban will have on the refugee crisis.

“A year or two from now, we won’t have any refugees resettled in the country and that’s 100,000 people every year. Plus, the effect it will have on other countries.”

“We have to understand that we are losing, badly, when it comes to this country supporting refugees or seeing them as anything other than villains,” she said. “We’re in this fight for the long haul.”