Iraq earned its way out of President Trump’s “extreme vetting” doghouse in large part because it agreed to play ball on another of the president’s big goals: getting countries to take back their illegal immigrant criminals.
Six countries remain on Mr. Trump’s temporary travel ban list, but Iraq was not listed in the revised order Mr. Trump released Monday.
Officials said it was a reward for Iraq’s efforts to fight the Islamic State inside its own borders, as well as promises of better cooperation not only in sharing information about its citizens seeking to travel to the U.S. — the goal of Mr. Trump’s extreme vetting plans — but also in deportations.
“Iraq has agreed to the timely return and repatriation of its nationals who are subject to final orders of removal,” a Homeland Security official told reporters this week, explaining how Iraq worked its way off the banned list. “That is a very, very important provision.”
Mr. Trump’s latest order was designed to repair the legal snafus that arose from his Jan. 27 imposition of a 120-day halt in the U.S. refugee program and a 90-day pause on admissions of citizens from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
This week’s version maintains the halt on refugees but narrows the scope of the travel ban, trying to avoid ensnaring visitors who already have some roots in the U.S., such as green card holders or those previously granted asylum.
Perhaps most striking, though, was Mr. Trump’s decision to drop Iraq from the banned list, instead proposing stiffer inquiries to make sure would-be visitors didn’t have ties to the Islamic State rebels that have ravaged the country.
Iraq vehemently objected to being included on the original list, and some analysts said Mr. Trump was risking the partnership that the two countries had forged in the fight against the Islamic State.
“Iraq is an important ally in the fight to defeat ISIS, with their brave soldiers fighting in close coordination with America’s men and women in uniform,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Monday. He also said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi deserved special credit for making the commitments to cooperate.
The Iraqi Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to repeated phone and email messages this week.
Mr. Trump’s initial target list of seven countries was compiled based on a 2015 measure approved by Congress beefing up travel scrutiny for countries that were deemed risks for sneaking potential terrorists into the U.S.
But Trump administration officials said another reason the countries landed on the initial ban was because their citizens had high rates of overstaying their visas in the U.S., where they become illegal immigrants.
At least some of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists were in the U.S. after overstaying legal visas.
Making the situation worse, the seven countries on the list were resistant to taking people back when the U.S. tried to deport them — meaning that even if American authorities identified potential bad actors, they couldn’t get rid of them.
“Even if the United States finds someone who is a terrorist from one of these countries inside the United States or at the time they applied for admission to the United States, [it] is much, much more difficult to remove them back to their home country,” the Homeland Security official said.
From Oct. 1, 2012, to June 30, 2016, Iraq refused to take back 160 criminals whom the U.S. was trying to deport, according to data obtained by the Immigration Reform Law Institute.
Iran refused 227 criminals.
Somalia rejected 139 criminals and 271 noncriminals, while Sudan refused 72 criminals and two noncriminals, and Yemen declined 19 criminals and one noncriminal. Libya and Syria each registered in the single digits.
As of last summer, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement listed 23 countries as uncooperative when it came to taking back their deportees, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.
The list is now down to 20 countries, though ICE officials declined to name them. Iraq is still on the list for now.
“While Iraq is still considered a recalcitrant country, the Iraqi government has begun to undertake steps to enable the return of Iraqi nationals subject to final orders of removal,” an ICE official said.
Those on the list can be subject to severe penalties, including the halt of all visas to citizens of those countries — a punishment even more severe than Mr. Trump’s latest travel ban. That punishment has been used only twice, though pressure has been growing to flex it more often.
During his campaign and again as president, Mr. Trump promised to use the power, saying that when countries refuse to take back their deportees it endangers U.S. citizens.
Perhaps the most notorious case was a Haitian man who had served prison time for attempted murder. Haiti refused to accept him when he was released, and ICE ended up releasing him.
Months later, he killed a young woman in Connecticut in a dispute over drugs with her boyfriend.
Dale Wilcox, executive director of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, said the case of Iraq proves that the threat of stripping visas can force countries to cooperate.
“In response to his predecessors almost never exercising this power, President Trump reaffirmed it in a January executive order and, as we can see now, it appears to be bearing fruit,” Mr. Wilcox said.
Still, Mr. Trump could be taking somewhat of a risk in carving Iraq out of the ban.
At least 19 people from Iraq have been connected to terrorist plots in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, according to an analysis of congressional data by the Center for Immigration Studies.