(Recasts first paragraph, adds details)
By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON, Jan 31 (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will issue an expanded version of his travel ban on Friday that targets prospective immigrants from Nigeria and five other countries, U.S. officials said, a move that could affect thousands of people and reignite debate over whether the policy is discriminatory.
Of the six countries added to the ban, four are African nations, leading to outcry from critics that the administration is bolstering a policy they claim was originally designed to target Muslim-majority nations.
The United States will suspend the issuance of visas that can lead to permanent residency for nationals of Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Nigeria, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said during a call with reporters on Friday. The visas affected are distinct from non-immigrant visitor visas, which will not be impacted by the ban, Wolf said.
The U.S. government also will stop issuing “diversity visas” to nationals of Sudan and Tanzania, Wolf said. The visas – which Trump has criticized in the past – are available by lottery for applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
(Graphic on visas: tmsnrt.rs/36Hy2zz)
Wolf said the six countries failed to meet U.S. security and information-sharing standards, which necessitated the new restrictions. The problems Wolf cited ranged from sub-par passport technology to a failure to sufficiently exchange information on terrorism suspects and criminals.
“These countries, for the most part, want to be helpful,” Wolf said, “but for a variety of different reasons simply failed to meet those minimum requirements that we laid out.”
The original travel ban – issued during Trump’s first week in office in January 2017 – barred nearly all immigrants and travelers from seven countries with majority Muslim populations. The policy was revised amid court challenges, but the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld it in June 2018.
Trump has made cracking down on immigration a focus of his 2020 re-election campaign and is expected to press the issue in the months ahead. His travel ban policy is popular with Republican supporters.
The existing version of the ban includes the Muslim-majority nations of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. North Korea and Venezuela also face visa bars, but those measures affect relatively few travelers. Those restrictions will remain in place.
The new travel ban will take effect on Feb. 22, according to a DHS official who briefed reporters later on Friday.
MOST VISAS FROM NIGERIA
Immigrant rights groups and Democratic lawmakers said the expanded ban stemmed from prejudice against non-white immigrants. Congressman Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado and son of Eritrean refugees, told reporters on Friday that the updated ban unfairly singled out allied African nations.
“It is un-American to discriminate against immigrants solely because of where they come from or how they pray” Neguse said.
In 2015, during Trump’s campaign for president, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Three of the nations included in the updated ban – Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria and Sudan – have majority Muslim populations. Eritrea and Tanzania have sizable Muslim minorities.
Of the new countries hit with visa restrictions, Nigeria sends the most immigrants to the United States. The U.S. State Department issued approximately 7,900 immigrant visas to Nigerians in fiscal year 2018, which began Oct. 1, 2017.
Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, said he was “disappointed” by the decision. The U.S. State Department will host meetings in Washington on Monday and Tuesday with Nigeria’s foreign minister and other Nigerian officials and business leaders.
The administration said the new ban was narrowly tailored.
Investor visas, which lead to green cards, will also be barred. But the restrictions will not apply to skilled foreign workers entering the United States on H-1B visas, the DHS official said. Such visas are temporary, but can lead to permanent status in the United States.
Immigrants already in the United States, or who have approved visas will be exempt from the ban, the official said. People with pending visa requests – some of whom have waited years – will be barred.
All applicants will be able to apply for a waiver, a process already in place under Trump’s existing ban. But a federal lawsuit challenging the administration claims the waiver process is opaque and difficult to navigate.
The visa restrictions will not apply to refugees, according to the official. Trump’s administration has separately capped the number of refugees allowed into the United States at 18,000 for the 2020 fiscal year, the lowest level in decades.
Belarus, which had been under consideration for inclusion in the expanded travel ban, took steps to remedy deficiencies in recent months and will not face visa restrictions, Wolf said. (Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Felix Onuah and Camillus Eboh in Abuja, Libby George in Lagos and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Rosalba O’Brien and Dan Grebler)