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Foreigners Trapped in the United States by New Policy

February 03, 2017

Much of the criticism of the executive order signed by President Trump has focused on foreigners prevented from entering the country, but a court filing in the legal battle over the travel ban reveals a far broader impact, imperiling the residency status of tens of thousands of immigrants — everyone from asylum seekers to students and technology workers — already living in the United States.

Amid a storm of protest, Mr. Trump on Thursday continued to stick by the ban as essential to the safety of the nation, saying that in the “coming days, we will develop a system to help ensure that those admitted into our country fully embrace our values of religious and personal liberty.”

“We want people to come into our nation, but we want people to love us and to love our values, not to hate us and to hate our values,” Mr. Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Now, the Department of Homeland Security’s internal auditor has entered the fray. The office of the department’s inspector general announced late Wednesday that it would review how the agency carried out the executive order, which suspended the entry of all refugees for 120 days and blocked for 90 days citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The auditor said the review was a response to requests from Congress, whistle-blowers and to complaints received on a hotline.

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In addition to reviewing how the Department of Homeland Security carried out the executive order, the inspector general’s office said it would review the agency’s adherence to court orders and allegations of individual misconduct. The inspector general’s office, which did not say how long its review would take, said it could look into other issues as well.

Following Mr. Trump’s order, the State Department went even further than prohibiting those outside the country from entering: It issued an internal memorandum revoking the visas of all nationals from those countries, without notifying them, even those who are legally studying, working and living in the United States.

“They aren’t just seeking to prevent people from entering,” said Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “They are excluding people who have been here for a long time once they leave.”

Some immigration lawyers said they feared that the State Department’s cancellation of visas could expose immigrants and other legal foreign residents to deportation, but officials at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security said those in the United States were not affected.

“This does not apply to individuals who were in the country on a valid visa at the time the order was signed,” said Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Only a case-by-case exemption deemed in the national interest “on the basis of a determination made by the secretaries of state and homeland security,” restore the visas while the policy remained in place, the department said. The visas were revoked “provisionally,” according to the memo, and could be reinstated once a new policy is formulated.

But for now, the loss of their visas means that anyone from those countries who leaves the United States — even for funerals or family health emergencies — would be unable to return without getting a new visa, a lengthy process that cannot begin until the Trump administration has completed its review of the visa program.

Unlike the refugee ban, which was announced with much fanfare, the canceled visas came to light only as a result of court filings by government lawyers defending the ban on travelers from the seven countries against litigation.

Trump administration officials said they had chosen those seven countries based on concerns expressed by Obama administration officials, who in 2016 required anyone passing through the seven countries to get a visa. But those involved in the Obama administration effort said that the countries had largely been chosen by Congress as part of immigration legislation passed in 2015 and that the visa reviews were intended to catch Islamic State fighters and not to ban or inconvenience all of those countries’ citizens.

“My parents still live in Iran,” said Mahsa Rouhi, an Iranian who holds a green card and is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “My dad is 82, and if my parents are in need of urgent care, I could face a choice of my job and my life here and caring for my parents. I was advised — most universities and institutions are advising people in my situation — not to travel, not to take the risk.”

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