In multiple congressional testimonies last year, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson hyped the action he was taking--under a law signed by President Barack Obama--to deny visa-free travel to the United States to citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries who had visited Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Somalia or Libya.
“Foreign terrorist travel, the prospect of foreign terrorist travel to our homeland keeps me up at night,” Johnson, for example, testified in the House Homeland Security Committee on July 14, 2014.
“We have enhanced security around our Visa Waiver Program,” Johnson said.
“With the help of this Congress last year,” he said, “we now have the ability to deny visa-free travel to those who have traveled to Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, and as a result of the three countries I added to the list because of this new legislative authority, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.”
When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on January 27 temporarily suspending entry to the United States for most—but not all—nationals of these same seven countries, the New York Times immediately described them as “Muslim countries” and “Muslim-majority countries."
However, in February 2016, when Johnson announced he was using the discretionary power he had under a law Obama had signed in December 2015 to add Yemen, Somalia and Libya to the list of the four other countries already covered under that law, the New York Times published a story listing all seven countries that made no mention of religion whatsoever.
The Times did indicate in that 2016 story that the Obama administration policy directed at people who had traveled to those seven countries was aimed at stopping terrorists from entering the United States.
That Times story--headlined “U.S. Expands Restrictions on Visa-Waiver Program Visitors”--was posted on Feb. 18, 2016. It began:
“The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday added three countries to a growing list that would prohibit people who have visited those nations in the past five years from entering the United States without a visa.
“The new countries are Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The department indicated that other nations could be added.
“The Obama administration previously announced changes to the visa-waiver program that would make it harder for travelers to enter the United States from Europe if they had dual citizenship from Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, or had visited one of those countries in the last five years.”
The Times story went on to say: “The changes to the visa-waiver program come after the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people and wounded 368. Because the attackers were all European citizens who were eligible to receive visa waivers, some lawmakers and counterterrorism officials feared that terrorists could exploit the program and travel to the United States to commit similar attacks.”
When Trump issued his executive order on Jan. 27, temporarily suspending travel to the U.S. for most nationals of the same seven countries targeted by the Obama administration’s action, the New York Times published a story headlined: “Trump Bars Refugees and Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries.”
That same day, the Times published a story file from Tehran with the headline: “In Iran, Shock and Bewilderment Over Trump Visa Crackdown.” The first two paragraphs of this story said:
“Families, businesspeople, athletes and tourists from seven countries in the Middle East and Africa found their travel plans—and even their futures—in a state of suspension on Friday after President Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring thousands from obtaining visas to travel to the United States.
“The order is expected to freeze almost all travel to the United States by citizens from the Muslim-majority countries of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for at least 90 days. Three of those countries are considered sponsors of terrorism (Iran, Sudan and Syria), and three are designated as countries of concern (Libya, Somalia, and Yemen).”
In 2016, then-DHS Secretary Johnson had on seven occasions submitted written testimony to congressional committees highlighting the administration’s move to deny visa-free travel to nationals of VWP countries who had traveled to the seven countries that the New York Times--after Trump’s executive order--would describe as “Muslim-majority countries.”
On February 24, 2016, less than a week after adding Libya, Somalia and Yemen to Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria on the Obama administration’s no-visa-waivers-for-visitors list, Johnson testified in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
“We are enhancing measures to detect and prevent travel to this country by foreign terrorist fighters,” Johnson said in his written testimony to that Senate panel.
“Last week, under the authority given me by the new law, I also added three countries--Libya, Yemen and Somalia--to a list that prohibits anyone who has visited these nations in the past five years from traveling to the U.S. without a visa,” Johnson said.
That same day, Johnson repeated these exact words in written testimony submitted to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
He would then essentially repeat these words in written testimony submit to the Senate Homeland Security Committee on March 8, 2016, to the House Homeland Security Committee on March 16, 2016, to the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 30, 2016, to the House Homeland Security Committee on July 14, 2016; and to the House Homeland Security Committee again on Sept. 27, 2016.
The executive order President Donald Trump signed on January 27—“Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”—does not cite any religious sect or denomination.
It does suspend--for 90 days--entry to the United States for most visitors from the 7 countries cited by Secretary Johnson--Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Somalia or Libya--while the government reviews its visa screening procedures.
It similarly suspends the U.S. refugee admission program for 120 days. And it suspends entry for most Syrian nationals indefinitely while measures are put in place "to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest."
It also calls on the secretary of State, in consultation with the secretary of Homeland Security, “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality.”
This provision could apply, for example, to both Syrian Christians and Syrian Shiite Muslims—both of whom are religious minorities in Syria and both of whom Congress has declared are targeted for genocide by the Islamic State.