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A New State Department Order to Revoke Visas Could Have Far-Reaching Effects

Immigration lawyers are scrambling to understand the meaning of a letter first disclosed late Tuesday.

The Trump travel ban could have far wider effects than previously understood for foreigners who waited years as State Department officials reviewed their immigrant visa applications. The new policy, disclosed yesterday, means that immigrants hoping to join their families in the United States from the affected countries may have to start the lengthy process all over again.

The policy, laid out in a State Department letter filed in court and previously noted by Politico, has sowed yet more confusion about President Donald Trump's executive order.

While the president’s order suspended the entry of all citizens from seven Muslim majority countries for 90 days, the State Department letter appeared to go much further, taking away visas rather than delaying their use.

”I hereby provisionally revoke all valid nonimmigrant and immigrant visas of nationals of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen,” states the letter, which was signed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Edward Ramotowski.

It’s not clear how many people are affected. In addition to immigrants, students as well as workers in the U.S. with long-term visas may also be impacted by the policy. If they travel and their visas have not been reinstated after the ban, they would have to apply again to come back.

Immigration lawyers interviewed by ProPublica were shocked by the letter.

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“It’s very, very unusual to do a blanket revocation of everyone's visa,” said Susan Cohen, an immigration attorney at Mintz Levin in Boston. “The thing that's particularly distressing about this letter is that it doesn't mirror the executive order.”

Zachary Nightingale, a San Francisco immigration lawyer said: “If all visas are cancelled then in the future everyone who had one will have to reapply. This is different than ‘no one can enter for 90 days.’”

Lawyers around the country are scrambling to get clarification. The confusion centers on what the letter means by the phrase “provisionally revoke.”

“Will visas automatically be reinstated? Or do you have to go back to the embassy and re-apply?” asks Denyse Sabagh, the head of the immigration practice at Duane Morris in Washington.

It is not a minor detail. In one case ProPublica reported last week, it took over five years for a young Yemeni girl with U.S. citizen parents to secure an immigrant visa.

The State Department declined our requests to clarify what “provisionally revoke” means. Instead, a spokesperson offered the following statement:

“At the request of the Department of Homeland Security, and in compliance with the President’s Executive Order, the Department of State provisionally revoked relevant visas as defined under the EO.  Those visas are not valid for travel to the U.S. while the Executive Order is in place.”

Update, Jan. 31, 2017: A Jan. 31 order issued by a federal judge in California says people with immigrant visas from the seven countries affected by Trump’s travel ban should be allowed to travel to the U.S. It also says the State Department is enjoined “from cancelling validly obtained and issued immigrant visas.”

But it’s not immediately clear what the order’s effect will be.

Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which has filed a separate suit representing several affected families, told ProPublica that it’s still unclear whether people will be allowed to board planes en route to the U.S.

“There are anecdotal reports that a couple of people with immigrant visas who tried to again board flights, pointing to that order, and were turned away,” Adams said.

A State Department spokesperson declined to clarify how the agency is interpreting the order.

“In so far as how we’re going to handle that, it’s wrapped up in the litigation,” the official told ProPublica. “So I’m not going to comment on how we’re dealing with the court order.”

The order does not apply to people with non-immigrant visas, such as students or many types of workers.

Marcelo Rochabrun contributed reporting to this story.

Correction, Jan. 31, 2017: This article previously gave the incorrect name for one law firm. It is Mintz Levin, not Mintz Cohen.

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