The administration imposed visa sanctions Tuesday on four countries that have refused to cooperate in taking back their immigrants whom the U.S. wants to deport, making good on one of President Trump’s campaign promises.
State Department officials said the sanctions begin Wednesday, halting issuance of at least some categories of visas to would-be travelers from Cambodia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Eritrea.
“The Secretary of State has ordered consular officers in Eritrea, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia to implement visa restrictions effective September 13, 2017,” the department said in a statement provided to The Washington Times. “The Secretary determined the categories of visa applicants subject to these restrictions on a country-by-country basis.”
The law allows for all visas to be halted to any country that refuses cooperation, but the department decided to impose less-draconian penalties in each of the four cases.
In Cambodia, only top diplomats and their families will be denied temporary tourism or business visas. In Eritrea, the U.S. Embassy will stop issuing business and tourist visas to all citizens.
In Guinea, government officials and family members will be denied business, tourist, and student and exchange program visas. In Sierra Leone, the government’s diplomats and immigration officials will be denied business and tourist visas.
Still, the sanctions mark a major increase in pressure on countries that refuse to take back their deportees. Mr. Trump complained about the situation during his presidential campaign and directed quick action in one of his first executive orders in office.
Homeland Security acting Secretary Elaine Duke triggered the sanctions last month by sending letters to the State Department saying that the four countries were recalcitrant.
The State Department then had 30 days to decide what the exact penalties should be in each case.
Sanctions have been triggered only twice before — once in 2001 against Guyana and again late last year against Gambia. In both instances, they produced quick results. Guyana moved within months to issue travel documents to take back 112 of the 113 deportees stuck in a backlog.
A man who answered the phones at Sierra Leone’s embassy in Washington on Tuesday said the offices were closed and urged a reporter to call back Wednesday. Efforts to reach the embassies of Guinea, Eritrea and Cambodia were unsuccessful.
The four embassies didn’t respond to requests for comment last month when The Times first reported they were being targeted.
Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA, which advocates for stricter immigration controls, said it was a start.
“The law says that we have the authority to halt visas from recalcitrant countries, and we should halt visas. We should stop the issuance of visas to countries that don’t take back their criminals. Period. Full stop,” she said.
“I’m glad the Trump administration is finally using this provision of the law, but they should be following it to the letter and blocking all visas,” Ms. Jenks said.
As of last month, a dozen countries were on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s list of countries that refused to assist in deportations. Sierra Leone was dropped from the list in May, but officials said there was still room for improvement in speed and cooperation.
Cambodia and Guinea are among the worst offenders, repeatedly failing to issue travel documents to accept people whom the U.S. is trying to deport. Eritrea has engaged in dialogue but is still “disappointingly slow” in issuing travel documents.
Thanks to a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, immigrants whose countries won’t take them back are generally released back into the community, though they often have serious criminal records. In some cases, the results are tragic.
In one high-profile case, Haiti refused repatriation of Jean Jacques, a man who had served time in the U.S. for attempted murder. Within months of his release, he killed a young woman in Connecticut after a drug dispute with her boyfriend.
Another illegal immigrant, Thong Vang, was released from prison in 2014 after serving time for rape convictions, but his home country of Laos refused to take him back. He ended up back in a California prison last year and shot two guards, police said.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump vowed a crackdown on the nearly two dozen recalcitrant countries at the time.
He blamed Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, for being part of the problem. He said she “allowed thousands of criminal aliens to be released because their home countries wouldn’t take them back.” He added that Mrs. Clinton should have pressured foreign governments.
Previous administrations were reluctant to trigger the sanctions, preferring less-serious moves such as ambassadorial meetings and scolding letters. Officials said visa sanctions were a blunt tool.
But Mr. Trump issued an executive order just days after being sworn in, demanding action. By May, his administration had managed to cut the number of recalcitrant countries to 12.
Major problem countries such as Somalia and Iraq were dropped. The Iraqi government promised to take back deportees as a condition of avoiding Mr. Trump’s travel ban executive order.
Still on the list as of May were Cuba and China — the two biggest offenders over the years. As of last year, the U.S. was trying to deport some 35,000 Cubans with criminal records. The number of criminal migrants awaiting deportation to China stood at 1,900.