New U.S. travel restrictions on six nations cite ID authenticity, vetting problems

Announcement made as purported former Al Qaeda leader arrested in Arizona
New U.S. travel restrictions on six nations cite ID authenticity, vetting problems

In a background briefing just hours before President Donald Trump issued a proclamation imposing new travel restrictions on six countries and updated the processes for evaluating foreign country compliance ensuring the validity of identity documents – including the biometric information they contain or used to vet ID documents – of residents seeking visas to enter the United States, senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials provided advance details on the impending proclamation, but only on the condition that their comments were strictly “attributable to [only] senior officials.”

And that was probably for good reason, as they pulled no punches in asserting DHS’s and the administrations “growing concerns” over resurging Islamist terrorist activity in some of the countries upon whom the new travel restrictions were imposed because of, as one official noted, the “significant impact [of identification] vetting deficiencies” by specific countries.

Another official echoed his colleague by saying the “gaps and vulnerabilities [identified in the named countries vetting procedures] could have an impact on immigration visas, meaning the U.S. does not know whether they have been properly vetted or not, in turn posing problems for U.S. border, customs, and immigration authorities.

DHS Acting Secretary Chad F. Wolf stated after Trump’s proclamation was publicly issued that the U.S. “does not receive the necessary information about [the] travelers [from the six nations] and, as a result, pose national security or public safety risk that warrants tailored travel restrictions.”

Ironically, as the proclamation was being issued, the alleged leader of an Al Qaeda group in Al Fallujah, Iraq, Ali Yousif Ahmed Al Nouri, 42, was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona Friday where he had been living for more than a decade; married; had a child, and managed a driving school.

How he managed to get past U.S. immigration authorities is unknown, although U.S. intelligence officials said his biometrics had been taken in Iraq where they say he was an Al Qaeda leader suspected of killing two people in Fallujah 14 years ago whom the Iraqi government had subsequently requested his extradition from the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Al Nouri and other members of Al Qaeda shot and killed a lieutenant and an officer with the Fallujah Police Directorate in 2006.

In compliance with its treaty obligation with Iraq, the U.S. filed a complaint in Phoenix seeking a warrant for Al Nouri’s arrest based on the extradition request. U.S. Magistrate Judge John Z. Boyle issued the warrant on January 29, and Al Nouri was arrested the following day.

The six countries which face the new travel restrictions according to the President’s Proclamation on Improving Enhanced Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry are Burma (Myanmar), Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania, the latter three of which the DHS officials who provided the not-for-attribution background briefing said posed unacceptable terrorism risks because of their inadequate identification documenting and vetting procedures.

Under Executive Order 13780, DHS established identity-management, information sharing, national security, and public safety risk criteria that all foreign governments are expected to adhere to facilitate accurate and fair admissibility decisions under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in a June 2018 decision, allows “Suspension of entry or imposition of restrictions by [a] President … Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.”

In March of 2017, President Trump imposed travel restrictions on seven countries that lacked either the capacity or the political will to adhere to these standards, exercising his legal authorities in Act.

DHS has systematically reviewed countries against Executive Order 13780’s established criteria five times, or every 180 days, and continued to assess ways to further improve its processes for measuring how countries perform under the assessment criteria.

“From July 2018 through August 2019, DHS updated its methodology to assess compliance with the assessment criteria. This allowed for more in-depth analysis and yielded more granularity and increased accuracy regarding each country’s performance on the criteria. As a result, this latest review gave us the most detailed picture yet into the degree of countries’ compliance,” Wolf explained.

An unattributed document explained that under the updated methodology “(f)or example, DHS now considers whether a foreign government reports lost and stolen passports at least every 30 days, instead of considering whether they have ever shared such information. By reporting regularly, DHS officers can determine passport validity with higher confidence.”

For example, one official who spoke on background during the briefing to reporters said Tanzania has made improvements concerning reporting lost and stolen passports to Interpol, but it still needed improvement.

During the background briefing, the officials singled out Sudan, which one official said had become a state sponsor of terrorism. The officials also singled out Tanzania as “posing a risk to the U.S.” noting that its cooperation with Interpol regarding reporting lost and stolen passports remain problematic.

DHS later publicly stated that Sudan was placed on the list because it “generally does not comply with our identity management performance metrics and presents a high risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States, and therefore is now subject to suspension of entry for diversity immigrants as described in section 203(c) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1153(c).

Similarly, DHS officially acknowledged that Tanzania does not comply with the established identity-management and information-sharing criteria assessed by the performance metrics, and, consequently, is suspending entry for diversity immigrants under the same statute.

Trump’s proclamation states: “Sudan generally does not comply with our identity-management performance metrics and presents a high risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States. Sudan is, however, transitioning to civilian rule, a process that should improve opportunities for cooperation in the future, and it has already made progress in addressing its deficiencies in several areas. For example, Sudan now issues electronic passports and has improved its coordination with Interpol in several respects,” and “has also shared exemplars of its passports with the United States and now permanently invalidates lost and stolen passports and fraudulently obtained travel documents.”

Nevertheless, “(b)ecause Sudan performed somewhat better than the countries listed earlier in this proclamation and is making important reforms to its system of government, different travel restrictions are warranted.”

The proclamation states that Tanzania “does not comply with the established identity-management and information-sharing criteria assessed by the performance metrics. Tanzania does not adequately share several types of information, including public-safety and terrorism-related information that is necessary for the protection of the national security and public safety of the United States. The Government of Tanzania’s significant failures to adequately share information with the United States and other countries about possible Ebola cases in its territory detract from my confidence in its ability to resolve these deficiencies. Tanzania also presents an elevated risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States.”

Although “Tanzania does, however, issue electronic passports for all major passport classes, reports lost and stolen travel documents to Interpol at least once a month, and has provided exemplars of its current passports to the United States” and “does share some information with the United States,” because “its processes can be slow, overly bureaucratic, and complicated by limited technical capability,” it is considered that “different travel restrictions are warranted.”

The process to consider the new travel restrictions on the six named nations was made “in coordination with the DHS Secretary, the Secretary of State, Attorney General, and the Director of National Intelligence,” and was “the fourth review required by Proclamation 9645. After further coordination with the other members of the cabinet and the National Security Council, the Acting [DHS] Secretary submitted his recommendations to the President on September 13, 2019,” a DHS statement explained.

Wolf said the proclamation places new, tailored visa restrictions on the six countries because they’ve failed to meet a series of security criteria, demonstrating that they could be a risk to the homeland.

“This enhanced review process raises the bar for global security by requiring nations to meet the Department’s stronger security standards and by making it clear to countries what they must do to meet those standards. The updated criteria enhance our screening and vetting capabilities and allow DHS to better identify terrorists and criminals attempting to enter the United States,” DHS said.

“DHS has refined its robust security standards, including enhanced screening and vetting capabilities, that allow us to better identify terrorists and criminals attempting to enter the United States,” Wolf stated. “These screening and vetting capabilities are most effective when foreign governments contribute to our ability to verify a traveler’s identity and assess whether they pose a national security or public safety risk. For a small number of countries that lack either the will or the capability to adhere to these criteria, certain travel restrictions have become necessary to mitigate potential threats. The new, additional restrictions are not blanket restrictions. These tailored restrictions will make the U.S. safer and more secure. And countries that make the necessary improvements will have their restrictions removed accordingly, as was done in 2018.”

The DHS officials who spoke on a not-for-attribution basis before the new restrictions being announced cautioned that the “President could impose additional measures if there’s no progress” on the part of the six countries his proclamation addresses.

That comports with what DHS officially stated publicly later that day when it said “the President may remove travel restrictions at any time. Conversely, the President has also determined that if improvements are not made, additional restrictions may be added. Those travelers who have already been issued visas by the U.S. government will not be affected by the new restrictions.”

The new changes “give DHS a more detailed picture of a country’s compliance with the individual criteria and to hold them accountable for regular cooperation,” DHS stated following the issuance of the President’s order. And “in doing so, the updated methodology helps guide U.S. government discussions with foreign governments. Since implementing these measures, the administration has recorded improvements in identity management and information sharing with multiple foreign governments, and because of this administration’s actions, our international partners have raised their baseline requirements.”

DHS said the travel restrictions imposed on the six nations “are tailored to the country-specific deficiencies identified during the review process and an assessment of travel-related risk. The new restrictions imposed by the President are less restrictive than the existing restrictions. Like the seven countries that continue to face travel restrictions according to Proclamation 9645, the six additional countries added for restrictions are among the worst-performing in the world; however, there are prospects for near-term improvement for these six countries. Each has a functioning government and each maintains productive relations with the United States. In each case and consistent with those restrictions imposed in 2017, the President has imposed specific travel restrictions to mitigate the risks posed. The restrictions imposed by this proclamation reflect the U.S. government’s greater confidence that these countries can make meaningful improvements in a reasonable period of time.”

The following are the other nations impacted and the reasons why, according to DHS.

• Burma: Burma has begun to engage with the United States on a variety of identity-management and information-sharing issues, but it does not comply with the established identity-management and information-sharing criteria assessed by the performance metrics. Suspension of entry for immigrants, except as special immigrants whose eligibility is based on having assisted the U.S. government.

• Eritrea: Eritrea does not comply with the established identity-management and information-sharing criteria assessed by the performance metrics. Suspension of entry for immigrants, except as special immigrants whose eligibility is based on having assisted the U.S. government.

• Kyrgyzstan: Kyrgyzstan does not comply with the established identity-management and information-sharing criteria assessed by the performance metrics. Suspension of entry for Immigrants, except as special immigrants whose eligibility is based on having assisted the U.S. government.

• Nigeria: Nigeria does not comply with the established identity-management and information-sharing criteria assessed by the performance metrics. Suspension of entry for Immigrants, except as special immigrants whose eligibility is based on having assisted the U.S. government.

Wolf explained that the “restrictions are the product of a comprehensive and systematic global assessment conducted by the Department of Homeland Security and the interagency,” and “are tailored to country-specific deficiencies, as well as travel-related risk to the homeland.” He stressed that the “restrictions do not reflect animus or bias against any particular country, region, ethnicity, race, or religion,” but, he was unequivocal, “we follow the threat—there is no predetermined outcome.”

Wolf said the “restrictions are the result of these countries’ unwillingness or inability to adhere to our identity management, information sharing, national security, and public safety assessment criteria—all of which has been communicated clearly and fully to every country,” and that as Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, it is my duty to fulfill the President’s utmost responsibility: protecting the American people. I am confident that [the] proclamation builds on the success we have achieved to date in raising the global baseline for security.”

Wolf went on to explain “why DHS evaluates foreign identity management and information sharing; what we look for; how the process works, and; what we learned about the six countries covered in the President’s proclamation.”

“First and foremost,” he stated, “it is the fundamental right of any sovereign nation to know exactly who is entering their country and for what purpose.”

“For DHS,” Wolf said, “we must be able to answer three basic questions to determine the admissibility of a foreign national: is this person who they claim to be? Do they pose a threat to public security and safety? And, do they qualify for admission to our country under the Immigration and Nationality Act?”

Wolf noted that ever since 9/11 the U.S. has built up an expansive infrastructure “to detect terrorists seeking admission to the United States,” but warned, “we are still heavily dependent on documentation provided by a prospective traveler and the information provided by a foreign government.” And it’s “for this reason the United States government continues to institute tougher vetting and tighter screening standards.”

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