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US officials reveal guidelines as travel ban takes effect

WASHINGTON // The Trump administration provided details of its revised travel ban on refugees and on visitors from six predominantly Muslim countries hours before it was to take effect on Thursday, seeking to avoid a repeat of the chaotic scenes at airports when the order was initially imposed in January.

A supreme court ruling this week allowed president Donald Trump’s executive order to take effect but significantly narrowed its scope, exempting travellers and refugees with a “bona fide relationship” with a person or entity in the United States.

In an effort to comply with the ruling, fine points were spelled out in a cable distributed to American embassies worldwide before the order took effect at 8pm eastern time.

While close family members of people in the US have been exempted from the ban on entry, including spouses, children, and siblings, others such as grandparents, aunts and uncles have not. Travellers with business or professional ties in the US also are exempted if they can show a relationship that is formal and documented, and not based on an intent to evade the ban.

The supreme court’s decision on Monday revived Mr Trump’s March order that bars entry to people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. It also suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days. The president has cited the risk of terrorists slipping into the US, while critics have said the ban discriminates against Muslims.

After lower courts struck down Mr Trump’s initial travel ban and the revised version, the supreme court ruling allows the government to deny entry to people from the six nations who do not have existing US links. Determining who must be exempted for having the “bona fide” connections mandated by the court has occupied officials from the department of homeland security, the state department and the justice department since the ruling was issued.

The state department’s guidance grants significant discretion to consular officers who will approve visas in US embassies around the world. For example, the guidance sent to embassies says that consular officers can decide that granting a visa to an applicant would be in the US’s national interest .

Administration officials are seeking to avoid any repeat of the protests that broke out in cities and airports around the country after the initial order was imposed with no advance notice in January. The subsequent order, which was the focus of the supreme court ruling, eased some of its most controversial provisions but left the central elements in place. In October, the supreme court will review an administration appeal of two federal appeals courts’ decision to block the ban.

Nongovernmental organisations and refugee advocates have struggled to establish how many people will be affected by the new restrictions. The US has admitted about 50,000 refugees so far this year, and officials said it was impossible to say how many would have been barred under the rules. One official said about half of all refugees have family ties to people in the US.

Air carriers affected by the new measures said they would take the presentation of legitimate paperwork for entering the US as indicating that passengers meet the requirements. Dubai-based Emirates, which ranks as the world’s biggest long-haul airline and has US flights originating from some of the affected countries, said its US services were operating as usual.

“All passengers must possess the appropriate travel documents, including a valid US entry visa, in order to travel,” it said. “Emirates remains guided by the US Customs and Border Protection on this matter.”

Etihad Airways, whose Abu Dhabi base is also a hub for the region, said it was operating as normal and would allow people with the correct documents to fly.

Advocacy groups, former US officials who work on refugee issues, and NGOs that relocate them to the US contend that the majority of refugees coming to the US already have family ties and that the existing process of clearing them to live in the US is extremely rigorous.

“The pause is not needed because the vetting process is so thorough already,” said Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. “The political campaign rhetoric that there was no vetting process or a weak vetting process is complete nonsense.”

The Trump administration has countered that refugees may pose a security risk. In addition, Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has said the US wants to keep refugees that have fled to places such as Jordan and Turkey within their regions so they can return home when it is safe to do so. He said other countries should take more of the burden.

* Bloomberg

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