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Explaining The Confusion Behind The Limited Travel Ban Guidelines


On this busy travel weekend for Americans, we'll turn now to President Trump's efforts to ban people from six predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S. Now, his initial effort had been blocked by federal judges after it sparked confusion, protests and lawsuits. But five days ago, the Supreme Court said the ban can be implemented in part. The justices said that foreign nationals without a, quote, "bona fide relationship to a person or entity," unquote, may be excluded. But just what is a bona fide relationship?

The State Department quickly issued guidance saying spouses, in-laws and children - including adult children - siblings and stepsiblings are in but grandparents are not. Those engaged to be married were not included initially but were added later. Now, this new version has not incited protests to this point, but it continues to spark complaints about how and why these distinctions were put into place. We wanted to hear more about it so we called Yeganeh Torbati. She covers the State Department for Reuters, and she's been following the travel ban story closely. I started by asking her what we know about the ban so far and how it was rolled out.

YEGANEH TORBATI: The State Department sent out pretty detailed instructions on Wednesday evening to consular officers saying that this will take effect in 24 hours or so, which was Thursday night. So far, it seems to be going pretty smoothly in terms of the consular officers know who they should be rejecting or not rejecting. It's a vastly narrower number of people from the original travel ban, certainly the one in January and then even the one that was revised and issued again in March. And that's due to the Supreme Court's limits.

MARTIN: So how was this information disseminated to the public?

TORBATI: Well, I mean, we and other news organizations were leaked these cables - not classified information. It's just instructions that were sent internally. So we published that cable, so that was sort of well-known. But then, also, the State Department, the day after, gave sort of a general kind of confirmation of the information that we saw there. And they posted some FAQs - frequently asked questions - as the Department of Homeland Security also did on their website.

MARTIN: Is there any statute that specifies what's considered to be a bona fide relationship? And part of the reason this comes to mind is that, in many cultures, a grandparent is a part of the immediate household. That is a very common family style for a lot of people. So what is the basis for that language? Do we know?

TORBATI: What the officials told us is that they went by standards that were set out in the Immigration Nationality Act. And I actually went back and looked. And according to the INA, which is the kind of major law that governs immigration policy in the United States - it's from, I think, 1965 - it lays out that a certain number of visas or percentage of visas can go to certain family members of U.S. citizens or U.S. green card holders. And those - it sort of ranks the family relationships. And brothers and sisters, children, mothers and fathers, those are sort of at the top. And then there's kind of like lower-level relationships.

So my best guess is that when the 72 hours that the State Department's lawyers had to sort of figure out how they're going to do this and the government's lawyers, they sort of went back to the INA and they said, OK, these are the kind of major relationships that U.S. law has already recognized and we can defend in court if we're challenged, which we're now seeing they are being challenged on this. And they came up with this standard.

Now, what their critics would say is that you are interpreting the Supreme Court's ruling far too narrowly, again in an effort to limit people from these six majority Muslim countries from coming into United States. You could be more expansive and you're choosing not to be. That's what the critics would say, and that's what I think they're going to be arguing in court.

MARTIN: But to go back to the original basis for this effort to exclude people from certain countries from traveling to the United States, the stated rationale was to increase security in the United States by creating another barrier to potential terrorists. If that is the stated purpose of this ban, what logic does the grandparent exclusion play in this? Did they make any connection between the distinctions they were drawing and the stated purpose of the travel ban?

TORBATI: To be honest with you, no. I mean, a lot of us are frustrated with the answers that we're getting in terms of what is the justification in the first place for this travel ban? I think we've gotten a lot into the legal kind of wrangling and the five, six months of legal arguments and disputes and protests. But fundamentally, what is the justification? And are Americans actually safer? We've posed this question.

I asked in the State Department briefing, what percentage of terrorist attacks have been carried out by grandparents from these six countries? We didn't get a straight answer. Their answer is this is the guidance we've been given by the president. This is how we can legally interpret and enforce the Supreme Court's ruling. And that's how we're going to go forward.

But, you know, the Cato Institute has done a study that examined the people that have been killed in terrorist attacks inside the United States. Between 1975 and 2015, no one from these six countries has killed an American inside the United States in a terrorist attack. And so it really sort of draws questions in terms of, what is the actual justification for the travel ban policy? We haven't gotten a - at least this week, we did not get a firm answer on that.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you indicated that litigation is going forward. Can you tell us about that? Where and on what basis?

TORBATI: Right, so I believe it's the Hawaii attorney general along with the ACLU, they filed a complaint on Thursday evening. It basically disputed the idea that fiances do not count as a bona fide relationship. We quickly saw the State Department reverse course on that. And it also took issue with the way that the refugee situation is going to be handled.

So the State Department has said that, obviously, the Supreme Court ruling was that refugees without a bona fide relationship in United States cannot come in beyond a 50,000 cap. We're almost at that 50,000 cap. And that means tens of thousands of refugees in the pipeline would not be able to come in.

What refugee groups are arguing is that these resettlement agencies that take responsibility for the refugees and help guide them as they come into the United States, they count as a bonafide relationship. The State Department says no. And so that's going to be a focus of litigation in the weeks ahead.

MARTIN: That's Yeganeh Torbati. She covers the State Department for Reuters. Yeganeh, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TORBATI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.