On Friday, the United States announced new restrictions on the issuance of visas to citizens of six countries, including Kyrgyzstan.
In a lengthy proclamation issued on January 31, the White House explained its rationale for imposing a series of visa and travel restrictions on citizens of several countries since Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
The administration says it has established a system to assess three criteria — “whether a foreign government engages in reliable identity-management practices and shares relevant information; whether a foreign government shares national security and public safety information; and whether a country otherwise poses a national security or public-safety risk.” As a result, it says, several countries have been subject to entry restrictions.
Given increased information and “more granular data,” the latest review of countries has resulted in new restrictions on six countries: Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.
The new set of countries, however, have more tailored restrictions than earlier waves and the proclamation makes reference to a 180-day window for improvement. Though not directly named, the administration references “one country” that had been recommended for restrictions in a September 2019 report but which was not included on the January 2020 proposal because of “exceptional progress in correcting deficiencies.” This may be a reference to Belarus, which appeared in a Politico report two weeks ago on a the draft list of seven countries being considered for travel restrictions. The other six appear in the January 31 proclamation.
The administration, in its proclamation, notes that “five countries” have “credibly communicated willingness to work directly with the United States Government to correct their outstanding deficiencies… For these reasons, these countries will be given an opportunity to show specific improvements in their deficiencies within the next 180 days.”
In the proclamation, Trump states that he has “prioritized restricting immigrant visa travel over nonimmigrant visa travel” because it is more difficult to remove a person who has come to the United States on an immigrant visa, rather than, say, a tourist visa. Immigrant visas include spousal visas, visas for foreign relatives of U.S. citizen and permanent residents, as well as employer-sponsored visas. Recipients of such visas may be more difficult to remove after they have been granted entry, but they also have established ties inside the United States. The new restrictions, in this light, come off as punishing those with actual ties to the United States while not necessarily acting to stop those with ill-intent from coming on tourist visas.
Two of the newly restricted countries — Sudan and Tanzania — are stated to have “performed somewhat better than others” and are only having their Diversity Visas suspended. The Diversity Visas program is colloquially known as the green card lottery.
Kyrgyzstan apparently falls within the administration’s definition as one of the “worst performing in the world.”
“Kyrgyzstan” the proclamation reads, “does not comply with the established identity-management and information-sharing criteria assessed by the performance metrics.” Bishkek also does not issued electronic passports and does not “adequately share” information relevant to public-safety and terrorism. “Kyrgyzstan also presents an elevated risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States, though it has been responsive to United States diplomatic engagement on the need to make improvements.”
Therefore, the U.S. has for the time being banned the entry of Kyrgyz citizens as immigrants — except for Special Immigrants, i.e. those “who have advanced United States interests.” This includes the Diversity Visa program, which in 2018 selected 753 Kyrgyz citizens of more than 14 million applicants worldwide (more than 32,000 from Kyrgyzstan).
The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, in a press release about the new restrictions, noted Kyrgyz government data regarding problems with the country’s passports:
According to the Kyrgyz Republic’s General Prosecutor’s Office, from 2015-2017, 64 criminal probes were launched into the illegal issuance of Kyrgyz passports. The Ministry of Interior noted that in 2019 alone, the State Registration Service illegally issued 36 passports.
In December 2019, the State Registration Service announced that Kyrgyz passports were falsified by individuals involved in a serious criminal case in Germany.
Nonimmigrant visas — for tourism, business, students and exchanges — are not affected by the new restrictions. The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan also noted in its statement that the “restrictions are not intended to be permanent” and waivers may be available for certain cases.
The reaction in Kyrgyzstan has been negative, unsurprisingly; although from the White House proclamation it seems that Bishkek knew this was coming.
Nevertheless on Saturday, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu. The ministry also issued a statement that pointed out that the United States was aware that Kyrgyzstan planned to introduce biometric passports earlier but had run into trouble. The foreign ministry also noted that “out of more than 80 countries where biometric passports have not yet been introduced,” only a few states have been selectively targeted with limitations.
“In this way, significant damage has been done to Kyrgyz-American relations,” the ministry statement says. Although it also notes Bishkek’s willingness to work on building “constructive and mutually beneficial” relations.
Kyrgyz passports have long been a favorite for forgery among the former Soviet Union’s less scrupulous. Last summer a passport forgery ring was exposed in southern Kyrgyzstan. But passports aren’t a new problem in the country. Back in 2005 IWPR ran an article titled “Kyrgyz Passport Scam.”
Whether Kyrgyzstan can make enough improvements in the 180-day window mentioned by the Trump administration is unclear given the delays it has already experience in rolling out new, biometric passports. As I noted in an earlier article:
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.”