Further Restrictions on Syrians Entering the United States

The new President of the United States Donald Trump wrapped up his first week in office by signing a controversial Executive Order on January 27th entitled Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. The Executive Order imposes exceptionally strict and unprecedented measures on citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen entering the United States. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be exclusively on how this latest measure affects Syrian nationals.

It is firstly important to mention that this Executive Order imposes a specific ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States until further notice. Refugees from the other six countries face a 120-day ban. Nevertheless, Christians or other religious minorities deemed persecuted in Syria by terrorist groups like ISIS and others will be exempt from this restriction and can apply for refugee status in the United States. Despite this provision, two Syrian Christian families with valid visas were detained and deported upon arrival in the United States soon after this Executive Order came into effect. In response to the refugee ban, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that Canada will offer refuge to those individuals denied entry to the United States.

Syrians are also prohibited from travelling to the United States on any visa category whether it is an immigrant or non-immigrant visa for the next 90 days though this timeframe may be extended. Therefore, this category appeared to include Syrian green-card holders who may have been visiting family members overseas or travelling abroad for work or other purposes. While the American Department of Homeland Security interpreted the Executive Order to exclude green-card holders, the Trump White House decided otherwise, which meant in fact that these lawful permanent residents were included in the ban.

The Trump Administration began reversing course two days later with respect to green-card holders and announced that these permanent residents will not be barred from re-entering the United States. According to sources familiar with the matter, these individuals will have to apply for a waiver to the Executive Order and are expected to face additional screening and national security checks before they are deemed eligible to re-enter the United States. At the outset, a senior Trump Administration official had stated that their personal circumstances would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

It cannot yet be confirmed whether Syrian green-card holders who are currently in the United States will have to visit a consular office before travelling overseas as was initially directed. One source has however cautioned that permanent residents should avoid leaving the country for fear of not being allowed to return to the United States. What is frustrating about this Executive Order is that it is being re-interpreted in a contradictory manner almost on a daily basis so there is no legal certainty in its provisions.

The 90-day visa entry prohibition period can be extended unless the Trump Administration establishes its ‘extreme vetting’ procedures. As part of these procedures, it will expect the governments of the seven countries to cooperate with it and provide relevant information on any of their nationals who intend to travel to the United States. As for Syrians wishing to travel to the United States, they will have to rely on Syrian-American governmental cooperation, which has hitherto been nearly non-existent since 2011. Such a position could however change under the Trump Administration.

The Iranian government has reciprocated President Trump’s measure and barred American citizens from entering Iran. Consequently, it is questionable whether the Iranians intend to extend such cooperation to their American counterparts. Iraq may also follow suit with Iran and block American nationals from entering the country after its Parliament voted to do so. Such a move would have severe consequences given the significant presence of American businesses in Iraq. Although unclear, it is unlikely that the Syrian government will ban Americans from entering Syria as it would have no real benefit.

There were conflicting reports as to how the Executive Order may target Syrians who hold dual citizenship in other countries. While initial interpretations and statements suggested dual nationals were caught by the ban, a number of countries have been seeking clarifications from the Trump White House. As the examples below show, Syrian dual nationals should not in theory face problems entering the United States.

In the case of Canada, a top Trump Administration adviser informed the Canadian government that its citizens will still be permitted to enter the United States regardless of whether they hold the nationality of any one of the seven countries. Therefore, Syrian-Canadians should face no problems travelling to the United States. Earlier, a representative from the American State Department cast doubt on this position but it has since been confirmed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office also confirmed that the entry ban would not apply to British nationals who also hold the nationality of one of the seven countries as long as their trip to the United States does not originate in any of those countries. If it does, then the dual nationals may be subject to extra checks by the American immigration authorities. Thus, in the case of Syrian-Britons, they should not face any problems as long as they do not begin their trip to the United States from Syria. It is worth mentioning that there are no direct flights between these two countries but whether this restriction includes connecting flights remains to be determined.

According to the British government, this is not an exception to the rules applicable to British nationals but rather a clarification of the Executive Order in general that it received from the Trump Administration. Hence, this should in theory apply to Syrian dual nationals of other countries as well but a case-by-case review cannot be ruled out at this point until there is further clarity on the matter.

If the ban were to apply to Syrian dual nationals, it could not have affected Syrian-Americans in any event. Syrians who are also citizens of the United States whether they were born there or naturalized are not affected by the Executive Order given that it would otherwise be a clear violation of the American Constitution, which safeguards the rights of Syrian-Americans. Under no circumstances could the Executive Order have any bearing on them or affect their status in the United States.

While there is much anxiety stemming from this Executive Order issued by President Trump, the federal courts have so far blocked its implementation in a series of emergency rulings. In their judgments, the courts have ordered temporary halts to the deportation of individuals who arrived in the United States with valid visas. As a result, deportations have so far been avoided though it is unclear how long this state of affairs will last. The Department of Homeland Security has furthermore stated that it will comply with the judicial orders. While helpful, the rulings have not decided whether President Trump’s measure is constitutional or not. So far, Attorney-Generals from 16 American states have stated their belief that it is indeed unconstitutional.

What is not garnering enough media attention is the fact that this Executive Order follows on from the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, which was signed into law by former President Barack Obama. It initially placed restrictions on Syrian dual nationals and visitors to Syria from the 38 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program by requiring them to obtain visas before entering the United States. Up until that point, the need for such visas had been waived. It is unclear yet what President Trump intends to do about the Visa Waiver Program in general.

The unprecedented nature of President Trump’s new rules, which are ambiguous in many respects, mean that American border guards will initially have some leeway as to which individuals they admit into the country. Time will tell what further ramifications this latest Executive Order will have on Syrians seeking entry into the United States as more certainty of how it will be implemented will become obvious in the coming days and weeks.

The sad truth is that while Syrians have always embraced visitors from abroad and showed them tremendous hospitability, they now continuously find the door slammed in their face in their hour of need. It is nevertheless difficult not to appreciate the outpouring of protests by a great number of Americans against this Executive Order. One can only hope that a solution to the six-year war can restore peace in Syria so its citizens can finally come back home.