Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Why Is Kyrgyzstan Being Considered for the New U.S. Travel Ban?

Politico reported that the Trump administration is considering expanding the controversial “travel ban” to seven more countries, including possibly Kyrgyzstan.

Catherine Putz
Why Is Kyrgyzstan Being Considered for the New U.S. Travel Ban?
Credit: Catherine Putz

The Trump administration is reportedly considering an expansion of its controversial travel ban, according to a report by Politico.

According to Politico’s sources, the draft list of countries being considered for travel restrictions include Belarus, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania. The report stressed that the list is not final so there may be more countries or different ones, but an expansion is being discussed. Of course, here at The Diplomat my eyes were drawn to Kyrgyzstan’s spot on that list. 

The original “travel ban” was an executive order signed by newly inaugurated President Donald Trump on January 27, 2017 and was heavily criticized for targeting predominately Muslim states. The initial version  lowered the number of refugees to be admitted to the United States and envisioned denying visas to citizens of the eight countries — Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, North Korea. After a series of court challenges the latest version excludes Chad (as of April 2018), but maintains certain restrictions on the entry of most citizens of the other seven countries. 

For example, all Iranians are barred from entry except those with student visas and on exchange visitor visas, though both are subject to “enhanced screening.”  The entry of all North Korean, Syrian and Somalia nationals is barred. In Venezuela’s case, restrictions are in place for officials of certain government departments (such as the Ministry of the Interior, Justice and Peace and the National Intelligence Service) and their immediate family.

Politico noted than an announcement for an expanded travel ban list is expected Monday, at the earliest. Monday would be the 3rd anniversary of the original order. 

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An important detail about the possible new order:

“A draft being considered by the Trump administration would place immigration restrictions on the additional seven countries, but not necessarily completely ban all citizens of those nations from entering the United States. The restrictions could apply only to certain government officials, for instance, or certain types of visas.”

This reads as a reaction to the court proceedings that followed the original ban. In an effort to avoid similar, successful, court challenges the administration would appear to be tempering itself up front.

The Politico report provides no details about the thought process behind the seven countries being considered for inclusion on the travel ban. But in his defense of the original ban, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Politico: “While there are no new announcements at this time, common sense and national security both dictate that if a country wants to fully participate in U.S. immigration programs, they should also comply with all security and counter-terrorism measures — because we do not want to import terrorism or any other national security threat into the United States.” [emphasis added]

Many an eyebrow among Central Asianists rose upon seeing Kyrgyzstan on the list of possible countries, though when the first order went out in 2017 Kyrgyzstan did pop up in reports pondering what countries arguably should be included, but were not, based on those whose citizens have carried out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. An NPR report in January 2017 listed a series of “attacks linked to radicalized Muslims in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.” On that list was the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, carried out by a pair of brothers, one of which was born in Kyrgyzstan.

But following that logic alone, Uzbekistan would also merit inclusion given the November 2017 attack in which an Uzbek immigrant drove a truck into a bike path in new York City, killing seven people.

Some on Twitter pointed to Kyrgyzstan passport problems as a possible reason for inclusion. In the summer of 2019, authorities uncovered a fake passport ring in southern Kyrgyzstan. The matter of forged passports is enabled by the fact that the state has bungled implementing new biometric passports after a corruption scandal over the bidding for the contract to roll out the new passports. The State Registration Service said in August 2019, according to a 24.kg report, that “Biometric passports will be mandatory introduced. This is a demand of time. For example, Saudi Arabia and the United States are already warning that biometric passports are required upon entry. This is only a warning so far, not a requirement. But we must introduce them by 2021.” 

Belarus has also run into delays in deploying biometric passports, but authorities in Myanmar announced plans to update passports back in 2015.

But frankly, this is all just guesswork. The reality is that for any given country, the administration can identify a “reason” to restrict entry. Even if the restrictions are limited, the repercussions on the United States’ reputation and soft power abroad will be negative. For Kyrgyz living in the United States, or those who have long dreamed of coming, even the suggestion of a restriction is an insult and a tragedy. On a geopolitical scale, such treatment arguably pushes Bishkek toward Moscow and Beijing rather than entice Kyrgyzstan toward the West. 

A new Central Asia strategy has been said to be landing “soon” — banning even just some Kyrgyz or specific visa types is not exactly a great complement to a new regional strategy based on enhancing cooperation and offering the U.S. as a balance to Russia and China in the region.

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The Politico report noted that “The countries under consideration for the expanded travel ban include some that have either had solid relationships with the U.S., or which the U.S. has courted.” 

Kyrgyzstan certainly falls within that comment having hosted a U.S. airbase supporting the war in Afghanistan from 2001-2014. While bilateral relations have hit a few bumps (hello 2015), Kyrgyzstan remains the most democratic state in the region and a key U.S. partner. 

But we have to wait to see if Kyrgyzstan is, indeed, included and to what extent visas are restricted. As former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States Kadyr Toktogulov pointed out on Twitter, “Kyrgyzstan already has a relatively high visa rejection rate for US visas. These additional visa restrictions that are reported to be considered by the US will probably not make the situation much worse for Kyrgyz citizens who have been eligible to travel to the US before.”