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As coronavirus epidemic spreads, Trump administration’s new travel ban hits China and beyond, prompting worries

While the Trump administration was making news Friday by adding six new countries to the travel ban meant to keep out suspected or potential terrorists, the White House was using the same legal authority to issue sweeping travel restrictions prompted by the threat of the coronavirus epidemic that began last month in China. 

The order forbids most foreigners who’ve recently visited mainland China from entering the United States, while also requiring mandatory medical screenings and quarantine for American citizens and green card holders who traveled to Hubei province in Central China, the epicenter of the current epidemic, within two weeks prior to arriving in the United States. 

President Trump signed a proclamation Friday outlining the new restrictions, which took effect on Sunday evening, after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency. The flu-like illness caused by the virus has spread to 25 countries, including the U.S., where there have been 11 confirmed cases. As of Tuesday, the total number of coronavirus cases had surpassed 23,000, causing more than 492 deaths worldwide, the vast majority of them in mainland China. 

It’s unclear how many people will ultimately be affected by the new coronavirus travel restrictions, but the broad scope and open-endedness of Trump’s proclamation raises concern among immigration advocates who are monitoring how Trump’s proclamation will be implemented and how long it will be in effect. 

Airline passengers wearing face masks at the San Francisco International Airport. (Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto)

The United States is the top destination for Chinese immigrants. As of 2018, the U.S. was home to nearly 2.5 million Chinese immigrants, comprising the country’s third-largest foreign-born population after Mexican and Indian immigrants. 

China also sends a significant number of non-immigrants to study and work in the United States each year. A 2019 report by the International Institute of Education found that China was the top country of origin for international students in the U.S. last year and one of the few groups that actually increased slightly during the 2018-2019 school year, while the overall growth of foreign students in the U.S. hit a plateau. According to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, Chinese nationals received nearly half of all EB-5 green cards issued by the United States to foreign nationals who invest in the United States in 2018, and came in second after Indians as the second-largest group of recipients for employer-sponsored H-1B temporary visas. 

An analysis of State Department data provided to Yahoo News by MPI found that, in fiscal year 2019, Chinese nationals were granted an average of 92,854 nonimmigrant visas and 2,285 immigrant visas each month, both types of which allow for multiple entries to the United States. According to MPI analysis of Department of Homeland Security data, in fiscal year 2018, Chinese nationals with non-immigrant visas were admitted into the United States 3.4 million times — an average of more than 285,000 admissions per month.  

“While not all of these admissions were coming directly from China, we can assume a significant portion were,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at MPI’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program. 

Of course, the new travel restrictions don’t apply only to Chinese nationals, but to foreign nationals of any country who may have been physically present in mainland China within 14 days before seeking entry to the United States. (There are certain exemptions including immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.) The presidential proclamation states that “During Fiscal Year 2019, an average of more than 14,000 people traveled to the United States from China each day, via both direct and indirect flights.” 

Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

A State Department spokesperson told Yahoo News in a statement that visa applicants are being encouraged to reschedule visa interview appointments to ensure that they fall more than 14 days after travel to China. 

U.S. consular officials, the spokesperson continued, must now determine whether anyone applying for either an immigrant or non-immigrant visa has been in China within 14 days prior to traveling to the United States. If so, “the consular officer will refuse the visa application unless one of the enumerated exceptions applies.”

Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, expressed concern that recent cancellations of visa interview appointments at the U.S. Embassy and consulates in China could present additional barriers for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents in China, who are technically exempt from the travel restrictions. 

A State Department spokesperson confirmed that “Due to the Chinese government’s restrictions on large gatherings of people, the United States Embassy and consulates in China are canceling routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments the week of February 3. A limited number of emergency appointments will be available.”

“We will resume routine visa services as soon as possible but are unable to provide a specific date at this time,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Yahoo News Tuesday. 

“Even if you weren’t subject to the ban, you would have a hard time getting out and even being able to apply to get a visa to come to the U.S.,” said Dalal-Dheini. 

It’s unclear whether current visa holders who are denied entry under the new restrictions will have their visas revoked or be allowed to use them in the future. 

While the guidance issued by DHS and the State Department in response to Trump’s proclamation focuses on intercepting possible carriers of the coronavirus before they board a flight to the U.S., a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Yahoo News that CBP officials at all U.S. ports of entry, including airports and border crossings, are following the same guidance.

“In the event CBP encounters a traveler that is deemed inadmissible, CBP will refer those travelers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for processing after screening by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or local health officials,” read the guidelines provided by CBP. “Additionally, U.S. citizens who have been in Hubei province or anywhere in mainland China within 14 days of their return will be referred to CDC for additional health screening.”

Flight attendants check the temperatures of passengers on a recent Air China flight. (Andy Wong/AP)

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defended the “aggressive actions” being taken to address the “unprecedented threat” posed by the coronavirus. 

Dalal-Dheini said that for now AILA is waiting to hear from member attorneys across the country to find out precisely how the ban is being implemented and how long it will remain in place. 

Without questioning the public health risk posed by the rapidly spreading coronavirus epidemic, Dalal-Dheini said it’s “definitely concerning how easily and readily” the Trump administration is using the broad authority it was given by the Supreme Court when it upheld the travel ban, especially in light of its recent expansion to six more countries, including Nigeria, the largest nation in Africa. She said immigration lawyers are dubious about whether the restrictions will end as soon as the health risks are diminished. 

The proclamation states that the restrictions “shall remain in effect until terminated by the President” and that the “Secretary of Health and Human Services shall, as circumstances warrant and no more than 15 days after the date of this order and every 15 days thereafter, recommend that the President continue, modify, or terminate this proclamation.”

“Hopefully they don't keep it as a cover, as a reason to exclude more people from the country,” Dalal-Dheini said. “We just need to be very vigilant and make sure it’s not being used as a guise.”

The Trump administration has systematically sought to reduce access to a variety of legal pathways to immigration in the United States, slashing refugee resettlement numbers to historic lows and effectively blocking asylum seekers from requesting protections at the border. It recently won permission from the Supreme Court for immediate implementation of a regulation that would exclude many foreigners without financial means. 

According to an October 2018 report by Financial Times, President Trump had been considering a proposal to ban student visas for Chinese nationals earlier that year, but had been convinced not to follow through over concerns about economic and diplomatic fallout. 

The effort to ban Chinese students was reportedly pushed by Stephen Miller, the senior White House adviser who has been instrumental in crafting the administration’s hard-line immigration policies, and who advocated for it as a way to combat Chinese espionage. 

During an appearance on the Fox Business channel last Thursday, before the announcement of the new travel restrictions, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggested that China’s coronavirus outbreak could help bring jobs back to the United States by hurting Chinese exports. The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets reported that the Commerce Department responded to questions about Ross’s comments by stating that it is important “to consider the ramifications of doing business with a country that has a long history of covering up real risks to its own people and the rest of the world.”

Over the weekend, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized “the U.S. comments and actions [as] neither based on facts, nor helpful at this particular time.” 

“Many countries have offered China help and support through various ways,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement to the press, noting that the day before Trump signed the proclamation, the World Health Organization’s director general stated that “there is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade” in response to the coronavirus. The United States’ decision to move forward with travel restrictions in light of this recommendation, Hua said, “has set a bad example. It is certainly not a gesture of goodwill.”

Eric Carter, associate professor of geography and global health at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., has previously cautioned against “targeting foreign nationals for increased scrutiny in the name of public health,” arguing in a 2016 article for the Migration Policy Institute that while public health concerns have historically been used to justify discriminatory immigration policies, evidence shows that travel restrictions “tend to have little impact on the spread of infectious disease.”

Carter told Yahoo News that, in the past, such security measures have been pursued after an epidemic has already unfolded, but that at this stage, travel restrictions and quarantine requirements imposed by the U.S. may have a better chance of successfully slowing the spread of the coronavirus. 

Still, he warned that “it wouldn't be surprising if the effect of this new policy was somewhat discriminatory.” 

“We live in a time where there is rising xenophobia and nationalism, and governments might feel more comfortable taking extreme measures to exclude foreigners under the pretext of a public health emergency,” Carter said.  

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