WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government granted waivers to just 6 percent of visa applicants subject to its travel ban on a handful of countries during the first 11 months of the ban, new data reviewed by Reuters shows.
Trump administration officials have pointed to the waiver process embedded in the travel ban as proof it was not motivated by animus toward Muslims, as critics have charged, but rather serves to protect the United States.
In June 2018, after legal challenges defeated earlier iterations of the ban, the Supreme Court upheld a revised version and wrote in its majority opinion that the waiver program supported the government’s claims that the ban served “a legitimate national security interest.”
But new data shows that only 6 percent of people subject to the travel ban were ultimately granted waivers during the first 11 months of the ban’s full implementation.
Between Dec. 8, 2017 and Oct. 31, 2018, State Department officers ruled on nearly 38,000 applications for non-immigrant and immigrant visas filed by people subject to the travel ban who otherwise qualified for the visas and needed waivers to get them.
They determined that just 6 percent - or 2,216 applicants - met the criteria for a waiver. Of those, 670 had not yet received their visas but were expected to do so.
The data was provided in a Feb. 22 letter from Assistant Secretary of State Mary Taylor to Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen. The letter was received by Van Hollen’s office on Wednesday, and his office provided it to Reuters.
“This data paints a clear – and deeply disturbing – picture of the Trump travel ban,” Van Hollen said in a statement to Reuters. “The administration repeatedly swore to the Supreme Court and the American people that this was not a de-facto Muslim ban and that there was a clear waiver process to ensure fairness. That couldn’t be further from reality.”
A State Department spokesman said on condition of anonymity that “a consular officer carefully reviews each case to determine if the applicant is covered” by the travel ban and “if so, whether the case qualifies for a waiver.”
The travel ban blocks citizens of Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, as well as some Venezuelan officials and their relatives, from obtaining a broad range of U.S. immigrant and non-immigrant visas. Chad was previously covered by the ban but was removed in April 2018.
The latest data show a slight increase in the waiver issuance rate. Data from December 2017 through April 2018 showed that waivers were issued in 2 percent of visa applications filed by people subject to the travel ban.
The ban’s restrictions vary from country to country - Somalis, for instance, can receive short-term visas and Iranians are allowed to get student visas, while North Koreans are blocked from all visas.
In addition to the almost 38,000 applications considered for a travel ban waiver, around 8,100 by people from countries subject to the travel ban were refused in the 11-month period for reasons unrelated to the ban, and nearly 2,600 applicants were found eligible for visas based on exceptions to the ban and thus did not need a waiver.
Critics say the waiver process is shrouded in secrecy, with vague standards and little information given to applicants about how they can qualify or apply for one. Two federal lawsuits are contesting the fairness of the process.
The official criteria for a waiver is a three-part test assessing whether denying entry to an applicant would cause “undue hardship,” if entry of the person would not pose a threat to the United States, and if entry would be in the national interest.
There is no application for a waiver - the State Department says it “automatically” considers applicants for them.
“They (the State Department) are actually actively telling applicants, ‘We don’t want your materials in support of a waiver,’” said Mahsa Khanbabai, an immigration attorney in Massachusetts who has clients subject to the ban. “Even in the cases where they do take them, the extraordinary amount of time that it takes to make a decision causes tremendous hardships for people.”
Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Kieran Murray and Daniel Wallis