Navigating Travel Bans and Visa Restrictions

With broad public support, the U.S. enacted a travel ban targeting people from certain parts of the world. Prior to the ban, one lawmaker expressed concern that other countries "dumped upon the United States their criminals... and their undesirables," despite a lack of evidence. The year was 1924, when Congress passed a law barring most Italians and Eastern European Jews, and virtually all Asians, from entering the country. While the law didn't explicitly ban Jews, nations with large Jewish populations were on the travel ban list.

Sound familiar? Travel bans and visa restrictions are nothing new, but they tend to coincide with stated national security concerns (although some have been overtly discriminatory). This article provides an overview of some of the higher profile travel and visa restrictions in U.S. history as well as ways to navigate these bans if you or a loved one are affected.

Travel Bans: Then and Now

2017 Travel Ban

In a campaign press release dated Dec. 7, 2015 (since removed but cited in a March 15, 2017 court order), then-candidate Donald Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." Once elected, President Trump instituted a travel ban affecting people in seven Muslim-majority countries, stating that his intent was to prevent terrorism.

Federal courts blocked the first ban on grounds that it violated the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection and the First Amendment's Establishment Clause (claiming it targeted Muslims specifically). The administration then issued a second executive order (excluding Iraq, but adding refugees to the list) but it too was blocked on similar grounds. The third travel ban added North Korea and Venezuela (their inclusion wasn't challenged), but removed Sudan. It, too, was challenged in federal courts.

On June 26, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this third iteration of the travel ban, stating that such bans are within the President's power and that this particular one was not a "Muslim ban." The ruling made the ban permanent, subject to further laws or executive orders.

The third travel ban applied to travelers from the following countries, to varying degrees:

  • Iran
  • Libya
  • North Korea
  • Somalia
  • Syria
  • Venezuela
  • Yemen

Earlier Travel Bans

The United States has implemented travel and immigration bans on various groups of people throughout its history. Other examples include the following:

  • Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) - This law explicitly banned immigrant laborers from China and also placed travel restrictions on Chinese-Americans. It was repealed in 1943, but strict quotas on Chinese immigrants remained in place until 1968.
  • Immigration Act of 1903 - Anarchists and others considered to be "political extremists" were banned from entering the country following the 1901 assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist. The law also banned beggars, prostitute importers, and people with epilepsy.
  • Jewish Refugees During WWII - President Roosevelt severely limited the number of German Jews who could enter the United States during World War II. He justified his decision by claiming that Nazi spies could hide among the refugees.
  • Iranians (1980) - Following the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for more than a year, President Carter instituted a travel ban on Iranians.
  • HIV Positive Individuals - People who were HIV positive or living with AIDS were banned from entering the country in 1987 under President Reagan. The ban was lifted by President Obama (a process started by President Bush) in 2009.

Note: All of the bans listed above have since expired or been overturned.

Those Generally Exempt From Travel Bans

Individuals in countries from which there is a ban on travel to the United States may be exempt if they have a valid visa dated prior to the effective date of the ban, unless their visa expires. Travel bans typically don't apply to the following:

  • Lawful Permanent Residents (i.e. LPRs or "green card" holders).
  • Foreign nationals admitted into the United States on or after the effective date of the ban or who have valid travel documents (boarding foil, etc.) valid on or issued after the effective date.
  • Foreign nationals traveling on a diplomatic visa.
  • Those with dual citizenship traveling with a valid (non-banned) passport.

How to Seek a Waiver to a Travel Ban

If you're affected by a travel ban, you may be able to seek a waiver if you're able to prove the following:

  1. Denial of entry would cause you undue hardship;
  2. Your entry wouldn't pose a threat to national security; and
  3. Issuing a visa to you is in the national interest.

You must apply for a visa at your respective U.S. embassy or consular office in order to apply for a waiver. Although waiver requests are processed on a case-by-case basis, reasons for a waiver may include the following:

  • You were outside the U.S. during the effective date of the ban after having already established continuous, long-term activities within the country, including business or professional obligations (i.e. denial of entry would impair those activities).
  • You were outside the U.S. for work, study, or some other activity on the effective date of the ban after having previously established substantial contacts within the U.S.
  • You'd like to visit with a close family member in the U.S. who's a citizen, LPR, or a lawfully admitted immigrant on a visa, and denial would cause an undue hardship.
  • You're seeking urgent medical care or your infant or young child has special circumstances requiring entry.
  • You've worked for the U.S. government having made positive contributions.
  • You're traveling to the U.S. as an exchange visitor, sponsored by the U.S. government.

Subject to a Travel Ban or Visa Restriction? Contact an Immigration Lawyer

Restrictions on travel, whether they're issued as an executive order or created by an act of Congress, have the potential to significantly disrupt lives and separate families. If you or a loved one has been affected by a travel ban or a visa restriction, don't give up hope. An experienced immigration law attorney can help you navigate the system.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you with visa procedures.