Minnesotans raise concerns about executive order restricting immigration from Myanmar, Eritrea


Minnesotans with ties to Myanmar and Eritrea raised concerns on Friday that President Donald Trump’s new executive order restricting immigration from those countries could interfere with families reuniting.

The Trump administration said it would block most immigration from those and four other countries in the interest of national security. Immigrant visas, issued mostly to foreigners intending to live in the United States, will be banned from Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea and Kyrgyzstan. The ban would prevent immigrants from Sudan and Tanzania from obtaining diversity visas drawn from a lottery.

“The plan is not very clear to us yet, but there is a lot of apprehension by the Eritrean community and what it means to have this travel ban,” said Essey Asbu, host of Eritrean Community Radio on KFAI-FM (90.3 and 106.7) in the Twin Cities.

Eritrea is recovering from war, and living standards are poor, he said, and people want to come to America and reunite with their families.

“It’s just a sad day in the relations of American and Eritrean history,” he said.

U.S. Homeland Security and State Department officials said some immigrants would be able to obtain waivers from the restrictions. The total number of countries on the restricted travel list, including Somalia and others banned previously by the Trump administration, now stands at 13. Immigration advocates are paying close attention to whether it could affect refugees, a group that is not explicitly included under the expanded travel ban.

“At a time when so many of these countries are going through crisis, now is not the time for the U.S. to close its borders to these countries,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the nation. She added: “Our fear is that this expanded ban will operate as a policy preventing families from reunifying.”

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trump said, “We’re adding a couple of countries. We have to be safe. Our country has to be safe. You see what’s going on in the world.”

The administration has argued that the ban, originally enacted in 2017 to restrict travel from Muslim-majority countries, is necessary to ensure that countries satisfy security requirements for travel into the United States, or face restrictions until they do. It says that the countries on the list have harbored terrorists, maintained outdated passport systems or failed to ensure adequate information-sharing.

The expansion of the restrictions, which already affected more than 135 million people in seven countries, is likely to hinder more than 12,300 potential immigrants from resettling in the United States or reuniting with their families.

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been one of the largest sources of refugees to Minnesota in recent years as the Karen ethnic minority flees persecution. Many still have family members who travel back and forth. Earlier this week, some were concerned about whether the ban would affect visas for temporary visits, but the administration says that there would not be restrictions on that type of travel for the new countries on the list.

“It would definitely become challenging and a concern if that ban took place,” said Eh Tah Khu, co-executive director of the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

Hsa Moo Sheemo, a pastor at K’nyaw Baptist Church in St. Paul, had been concerned about whether relatives in Myanmar would be able to make it to his daughter’s summer wedding in Minnesota.

“We should see if there’s a way to do a better job of screening people. … [The new policy] is putting everybody in the same bucket whether or not they are causing the problem, so it’s not a good thing,” said Sheemo, who came here as a refugee and is now an American citizen.

Veena Iyer, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, denounced the ban for targeting African countries, on top of Somalia, which was a target of the first ban. And she noted that it would affect family members living abroad of significant numbers of refugees and immigrants who came here from Myanmar and Eritrea.

“This action will directly harm Minnesota communities,” she said in a statement.

The executive order comes as the 2020 election heats up. Trump is expected to use his travel ban, as well as his efforts to cut refugee admissions, to rally his political base. Democrats condemned its expansion.

“The expansion of the administration’s latest travel ban to add additional countries including Myanmar, where many families in our state are from, is wrong,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, in a statement.