One day before President Donald Trump's temporary ban on all refugees and travellers from six predominantly Muslim countries is scheduled to take effect, there is still widespread uncertainty about how the administration will implement it. However, the Trump administration set out some visa guidelines based on a court's decision to allow through a watered-down version of the ban.
The confusion follows a United States Supreme Court decision on Monday that allowed the long-delayed executive order to take effect but significantly narrowed its scope. It exempted travellers and refugees who have a "bona fide relationship" with a person or entity in the US.
As of Wednesday, the main federal departments and agencies responsible for implementing the ban had not issued official legal guidance to staff in the field or to the public. Among the questions to be resolved are how pending and future visa and refugee applications will be handled during the period of the ban.
The Trump administration, however, outlined new criteria for visa applicants from the six nations – Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – and all refugees that require a "close" family or business tie to the US.
The new guidelines sent to US embassies and consulates on Wednesday say that applicants from the six countries must prove a relationship with a parent, spouse, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling in the U.S.
This is according to a US Department of State cable obtained by the Associated Press.
Grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-laws and sisters-in-law, fiancees or other extended family members are not considered to be close relationships.
Many immigrant and refugee agencies say they need more details in order to prepare their clients for what to expect.
Without guidance from the administration, "it’s easy to game out a number of ways this could go off the rails," said Johnathan Smith, legal director of legal advocacy group Muslim Advocates.
Waiting on legal guidance
The state department on Tuesday said it was waiting for legal guidance from attorneys at the Department of Justice.
US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said on Wednesday that he told Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees he wants to tread carefully in implementing the order.
“I told my folks I didn’t want to come anywhere near close to getting crosswise with the court. I think that’s the right way to be a public servant,” Kelly said. He expects the government will win the case when it is heard this fall.
David Lapan, a DHS spokesman, said additional information will be released on Thursday, the day the ban is to start. A justice department spokesman did not respond to requests seeking comment.
The six countries
The ban's looming enforcement against nationals of Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen stirred anger and confusion in parts of the Middle East on Wednesday, with would-be visitors worried about their travel plans and their futures.
Kiyanoush Razaghi, an immigration attorney in Maryland with primarily Iranian clients, said he has received a flurry of messages from Iranians wondering what it would mean for their plans to enter the US.
The Supreme Court specifically mentioned family ties and job or university offers as reasons to exempt someone from the ban, but did not mention such issues as business or professional conference travel.
Airlines in the region said they had not received a directive from the US, and there were few people at the US Consulate in Dubai, where there is normally a line out the door of people waiting to process visa applications.
The state department has said it does not plan to cancel previously scheduled visa appointments for residents of the six countries.
The ban saga
Trump issued the ban in a March 6 executive order, saying it was a temporary measure needed to allow the administration to review the vetting process for immigrants from those countries.
The executive order was widely criticised as a ban on Muslims.
Travel from the six countries was banned for 90 days and for all refugees for 120 days.
But lower courts in Maryland and Hawaii blocked the order, saying it was a pretext for targeting Muslims and violated the US Constitution's prohibition on favouring one religion over another. The Supreme Court then narrowed the scope of the lower court injunctions.
Refugees entering US
Refugee advocates are struggling to understand what the court ruling will mean to applicants in the pipeline.
The state department on Tuesday said the US has already admitted about 49,000 refugees for the fiscal year ending in September, while Trump's executive order set a cap of 50,000.
The high court's decision allowed the cap take effect, but only against those who do not have a “bona fide” connection.
Refugee resettlement agencies are poised to argue that their relationships with individual refugees, which entail coordination with the US government, sometimes over the course of years, meets the Supreme Court's standard.
If the government accepts that view, it would likely mean that every refugee already cleared for resettlement would be eligible to enter the United States.
A narrower approach limiting entry only to refugees with US family members would shut out some of the most vulnerable populations, said Eleanor Acer, from the organisation Human Rights First.
These include children in need of urgent medical care and women who are victims of human trafficking, she said.
The State Department has told refugee resettlement partners abroad that they should proceed with the resettlement of refugees scheduled to travel to the United States through July 6.
Kelly on Wednesday unveiled enhanced security measures for foreign flights arriving in the US in what officials said was a move that aims to end a limited in-cabin ban on laptops and other large electronic devices and prevent its expansion to additional airports.
The new security measures, which European and U.S. officials said would begin taking effect within three weeks, could prompt additional screening time for the 325,000 airline passengers arriving in the US daily.
"Inaction is not an option," Kelly told a news briefing, adding that he believes airlines will comply with the new screening. But he said the measures are not the last step to tighten security.
The decision not to impose new restrictions on laptops is a boost to US and European airlines, which have worried that an expansion of the ban to Europe or other locations could cause significant logistical problems and deter some travel.
The US in March imposed restrictions on laptops on flights originating at 10 airports in eight countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey. They came amid fears that a concealed bomb could be installed in electronic devices taken aboard aircraft. Britain quickly followed suit with a similar set of restrictions.