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Recent Changes to US Immigration Policy

Volume 778: debated on Monday 30 January 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a Statement on the implications for this country of recent changes in US immigration policy.

In view of the understandable concern and uncertainty, it may be helpful if I describe for the House the consequences for British citizens and dual nationals of the executive order issued last Friday. Let me begin by saying that this is not UK policy—this is not our policy—or a measure that the UK would ever introduce. I have already made clear our anxiety about measures that discriminate on grounds of nationality in ways that are divisive and wrong.

On 27 January, President Trump issued an executive order banning the citizens of seven countries from entering the US for a period of 90 days. Those countries are Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Sudan. The order makes clear that no US visas will be issued to citizens of those states, and anyone who already has a visa will be denied entry.

The immigration policy of the United States is of course a matter for the Government of the United States, but on the face of it this executive order had consequences for some British citizens. For that reason, I spoke yesterday to the US Administration, and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has today spoken to General Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security. I am able to provide the following clarification.

The general principle is that all British passport holders remain welcome to travel to the US. We have received assurances from the US embassy that this executive order will make no difference to any British passport holders, irrespective of their country of birth or whether they hold another passport. In any case, the executive order is a temporary measure intended to last for 90 days until the US system has added new security precautions. This is of course a highly controversial policy that has caused unease, and I repeat that this is not an approach that this Government would take.

Let me conclude by reminding the House of the vital importance of this country’s alliance with the United States. On defence, intelligence and security, we work together more closely than any other two countries in the world. That relationship is overwhelmingly to our benefit. The Prime Minister’s highly successful visit to the White House last week underlined the strength of that transatlantic alliance. Where we have differences with the US, we shall not quail from expressing them, as I have done so today, and as the Prime Minister did in Philadelphia last week. But I will also repeat our resolve to work alongside the Trump Administration in the mutual interest of both countries. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s visit took place last week in the context of the biggest global refugee crisis that we have seen since the Second World War, with huge implications for peace and security throughout the world. The 1951 refugee convention and 1967 refugee protocol oblige all signatories to accept refugees from war, without regard to their race, religion or country of origin. This order is in clear breach of that international obligation.

As Mr. Trump signed this executive order barely an hour after he had finished his talks with the Prime Minister on Friday, can the Minister explain why the Prime Minister, unlike the German Chancellor, felt unable on Saturday to remind the President of these responsibilities and condemn this action and executive order? Can the Minister also tell us whether the Government have made any assessment of the impact this order may have on the United Kingdom’s ability to uphold its obligations under these international treaties?

While the reassurance on British citizens is extremely welcome—I am pleased the Government were able to sort that out over the weekend—will the Minister confirm that those citizens of the seven designated countries who do not hold British passports but are legally resident here in the UK will be barred from travelling to or through the United States? Will she also reassure the House that, during the 90-day period of this order, which, as she said in the Statement, is a temporary measure, the Government will take every step and opportunity at all levels of our special relationship to raise with the US Administration that this is a divisive and dangerous policy that will impact on peace and security throughout the world?

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement, and I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has described the new US immigration policy as “divisive and wrong”—it surely is.

Can I point out that, as originally announced, this policy would have swept up the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, who might have had the uncertain privilege of risking jail if she returned to her home country of Iran, yet being expelled if she tried to enter the so-called liberal democracy of the USA? As someone who benefited from that liberal democracy by being able to pursue all my postgraduate study in the United States, I find this development almost unbelievable. It was an astonishing action to take in relation to refugees on Holocaust Memorial Day.

What assessment has been made of the potential backlash from countries identified and from Muslim communities worldwide, and what impact might this policy have on British citizens, including aid workers, army personnel and diplomatic staff living and working in these countries? Do the Government agree that the policy potentially promotes, rather than limits, instability and insecurity? Might we even have seen evidence of that divisiveness in the utterly inexcusable act of terrorism that we have just seen in Canada, whose leader was wonderfully forthright in rejecting his neighbour’s policy?

Does the Minister agree that working together with our European allies is, right now, even more important than it ever was, in the light of the unpredictable and reactionary nature of the current US Administration? What are we doing in pivoting away from Europe towards the US? Does she agree that, even though President Trump’s apparent commitment to NATO may be welcome, we cannot rely on what he seemed to agree? Does she agree that, although trade with the US is important to us, it is dwarfed by that with the EU as a whole, and that expanding it is less a matter of tariffs and more a matter of standards and regulation, and that none of us would wish to lower our standards in agricultural products to enable an increase in that trade—an increase which experts estimate may amount to only 2%?

In conclusion, will the Minister strongly reaffirm that, even in our exposed post-referendum position, the UK Government will not in future hesitate before we make it plain that we will not stand by when there are such assaults on the liberal international order—rather, we will challenge both the ideology and actions that are illustrated by the orders emerging from the Trump Administration in their very first week?

My Lords, I believe that both my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have made it very clear that they consider that the executive order was wrong and divisive. I think that that covers much of what the noble Baroness has referred to there.

With regard to its impact on people around the world, time will tell, but of course the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and all its personnel around the world stand ready to assist anybody who feels that they may be unsettled or be in any difficulty as a result of any opinions expressed in those countries. The noble Baroness raises an important point on that matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked in particular about our view on refugees. For us, the implications are quite simple: we do not resile from any of our undertakings to international law and international humanitarian law. The UNHCR and the IOM remain strong partners for the UK in delivering our humanitarian and development response to the refugee crisis. Of course we will need to wait and understand any impact of US decisions on their operations, but we will look very carefully, and our commitment to them remains.

I was asked why the Prime Minister did not immediately condemn the executive order on Saturday. That was for two reasons, but the prime one was that on Saturday we were waiting to have clarification about the implications for the range of those who carry British passports, and to think before we acted. Also, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, with regard to international relations it is the Foreign Secretary who takes action and with regard to issues of immigration it is the Home Secretary who takes action, and therefore they pursued these matters at the earliest opportunity.

I was asked whether an assessment has been made in the UK about upholding our obligations. As I say, the assessment is that we maintain our obligations on refugees.

I was also asked about those who are legally resident here and whether their ability to travel to the United States has been compromised. The US embassy web page has been updated to clarify that matter, and it says that, additionally, those who have indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom and hold nationality of one of these countries are eligible to apply for US visas. So they are eligible to apply for visas.

Clearly, this is a matter where we should work with all our allies, both within the European Union and worldwide, to ensure that all of us understand our duties in international law—and, beyond international law, humanitarian law and our simple duty as humanitarians in these issues.

My Lords, as an example of the special relationship in practice, could the Minister—with whom I sympathise—inform the House when we were first told?

My Lords, clearly there were private conversations happening with the Prime Minister on Friday, and there was a public press conference, and I am not going to add to those. But it certainly became clear, when the executive order was published, what the text of that was. As I am sure my noble friend will be aware, the position has been, from the point of view of the United States at least, rather evolving and, let us say, confusing.

My Lords, the noble Baroness said that the Prime Minister’s visit was a success. Does she realise why there are many in Britain who regard her scramble to be the first through the doors of Mr Trump’s house as both unseemly and ill judged? Did she not realise when she went there that Mr Trump has specifically made it clear that he wishes to see the break-up of the European Union? Does she not realise that to be the first through that door in the way she did is bound to ensure that she is treated with greater suspicion when she comes to bargain on our behalf with the members of the European Union? For a little PR and a distant promise of some trade deal that we do not know any details about, she has damaged her ability to get a decent deal for this country in the thing that really matters.

As for the invitation for a state visit, I make this prediction. I do not know whether it will embarrass Her Majesty—she will do her duty, no doubt, as she always does—but I promise that this will end up embarrassing the Government and, in the face of the huge public demonstrations against him, end up embarrassing the highly volatile, thin-skinned US President. I cannot see how that helps anybody.

I have never known my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to scramble or be undignified, and I have known her for some long while. She demonstrated her dignity and statesmanship when she was in the United States, and she will continue to do so as she fights for British interests. It is the case that the United States, as the noble Lord is well aware, is our oldest and strongest ally—historically, as I was always reminded by one noble Lord, Portugal beats them in time, of course—and certainly it is our strongest ally. For the sake of world peace, it is right that that alliance should remain so. However, as the Prime Minister said, she will make clear her views; when we disagree, we will make it clear.

Yes, indeed, Her Majesty the Queen has issued an invitation to President Trump. Details of the date and arrangements have not been announced, but I would judge that the people of this country will act with dignity as well at the time.

My Lords, would the Minister say very clearly—I think she is about half way there—whether or not we regard the action taken by the US Administration, in particular the action on refugees, as consistent with their having signed and ratified the 1967 protocol to the 1951 convention? Secondly, would she say whether the British Government consider that the action that has been taken by the US Administration is likely to reduce the threat from terrorism or, possibly, make it worse?

My Lords, on threats of terrorism I rely on the advice of our security agencies and border security, to whom I pay great credit. I saw them in operation when I returned earlier this month from a Foreign and Commonwealth meeting overseas. I have great respect for the work that they do. I am not going to jump to any conclusions here or announce the results of any assessment. It will be for those in the United Nations to take a view on the matter of law and whether this is a breach of the 1951 convention. I would hope that advice was taken before the order was issued.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister has said about refugees, but it is not clear what the British Government have said to the US Government, particularly regarding the blanket, open-ended exclusion of refugees from Syria, which must clearly contravene the obligations under the refugee convention and protocol. What has been said to the US Government on this specific issue?

My Lords, the fact that we have said this is divisive and wrong encompasses that as well, as does the fact that we would not carry out a similar act. That covers the fact that this is not the way we would behave towards refugees. The Home Secretary has of course made it clear that it is important to understand whom one is describing when one talks about refugees, and to take into account the security of a nation in the way one screens those arriving in one’s own country. We make careful efforts to do that, but that also means that we would not use this kind of executive order.

My Lords, the Minister tells the House that the reason the Prime Minister hesitated—if I can describe it that way—was because she was waiting to be on top of the facts and they were not clear when it originally happened. When moderate Muslims in this country—I hate to describe myself in that way; I prefer to use the phrase secular Muslim—are constantly exhorted to fight radical elements in our midst, we take up that challenge. Does the Minister accept that in return we expect our Government, whether they are waiting for facts or not, to speak with a clear, moral voice when actions are wrong and simply say, as Angela Merkel has, that it is wrong to generalise among entire countries of people? That is what we expect to hear from our Prime Minister and it was extremely sad to hear her. It made communities in this country extremely nervous. It is only by luck that Pakistanis, large numbers of whom are in this country, are not on this list, although we know that Pakistan is a source of terrorism. For some inexplicable, illogical reason, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not on the list but they could have been and it would have affected tens of thousands of people in this country.

My Lords, as I have said before, my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have made it clear that this is divisive and wrong. I do not know what could be clearer than that. Today we have had the opportunity to give the detail of the implications for those who hold British passports, and they are still welcome in the United States. The noble Baroness referred to other countries. I appreciate that the list is of seven countries whose nationals President Obama had previously said would have to apply for visas and not be able to use the visa waiver scheme. The question of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan is one for the US Administration, not us.

My Lords, when my noble friend gets back to her office, will she look at an article entitled “One million sign a petition” on the BBC news website and then scroll down to look at the 5,000 plus comments? She, and the whole House, would find it interesting. There is overwhelming condemnation of the “synthetic outrage” at the ban. She will see that there is massive support for President Trump coming here; that there is recognition that it is not a ban on Muslims; that the list of countries was drawn up by Obama, who banned everyone coming from Iraq for six months; and that the President was merely implementing what he promised to do when he was standing for election—a nice change from Obama. On the BBC website the silent majority are not opposed to the President’s visit and are not outraged.

My Lords, I have carefully noted that, whenever President Trump has been asked about these matters, he has sought to stress the fact that it is not about Muslims, it is about the countries concerned. It is important for those who are responsible for carrying out the processes by which people now enter the US to hear that.

Does the Minister agree that the real tragedy in this situation is that, faced with global insecurity and dangers on an unprecedented scale, the challenge, above all else, is to build bridges, make friends and win good will? A few hasty words, ill thought out in their consequences, can do immense damage to that cause. If we really are going to make this relationship with the States so important, we have to undertake a huge battle with our friends in government there to persuade them to take the course of reconciliation and understanding. The underlying issue is that we will ultimately secure a peaceful world by winning minds and hearts, not by executive orders.

My Lords, the devil is often in the detail, so I would be grateful if the Minister clarified that, although British residents are eligible to apply for visas to travel to the United States, the Printed Paper Office copy of the Statement outlines that they could face additional screening at US airports. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s own website still states that dual nationals will be affected: that they might have extra checks if they are,

“coming from one of the 7 countries themselves – for example a UK-Libya dual national coming from Libya to the US”.

Can the Minister clarify that point? In your Lordships’ House on 16 November, I raised the issue of whether US immigration policy would be applied to UK citizens, irrespective of their faith or belief. On that occasion, the Minister quoted the policy of US Customs and Border Protection, which clarified that:

“The religion, faith, or spiritual beliefs of an international traveller are not determining factors about … admissibility into the US”.—[Official Report, 16/11/16; col. 1425.]

If there are to be extra checks for British residents or dual nationals, as outlined on the website, will the Minister assure the House that the United States will be applying those checks, irrespective of the faith or belief held by that British resident or national, and that British dual nationals who happen to be Muslims will not face different checks from those who happen to be Christians or Hindus?

I can assure my noble friend that that is the position as we understand it, as it is the existing direction given to those who carry out the checks. The FCO website says:

“The only dual nationals who might have extra checks are those coming from one of the 7 countries themselves – for example a UK-Libya dual national coming from Libya to the US”.

This was merely a caveat; a slight warning that there is likely to be longer queues for those going into the US. All of us who have travelled to the United States know how long those queues can be. It is just a cautionary matter in an evolving and confusing time at the US end. There will still be time for this to work through. Of course, this is only for a 90-day period, subject to evaluation, and we understand that there are legal challenges in some US states.

My Lords, before she went to Washington, the Prime Minister suggested that she was going to “speak truth to Trump”. At the press conference on Friday, it appeared that she may have made some progress on NATO and torture, yet her response to the executive orders was that the United States was responsible for its policy on refugees. Does the Prime Minister understand that there is a difference between refugee policy and immigration policy? Can we call on the Minister to ask the Prime Minister to tell the President of the United States that his action is in breach of international law? The Foreign Secretary telling Members of the House of Commons about the rights of UK nationals is one thing, but if anything is speaking “truth to Trump”, it is saying that this policy on refugees is morally abhorrent and illegal.

My Lords, as I have already mentioned, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that this policy is wrong and is not one that we would adopt. But, clearly, Governments make policy. We did not make this one and, as I have said, we would not make it. We could not make that clearer to President Trump if we tried. The whole issue of international law is a matter for lawyers to construe. I am sure that we and all the members of the United Nations will work on this issue to see whether it is compatible with international law, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, raised.

My Lords, the Minister just referred to the importance of international law. I press her further on the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Hannay, my noble friend and the noble Baroness. Are the law officers being asked to give advice to the Government, so that not only we but our many friends who sit in the American Congress can evaluate what they have to say about our commitments under the Geneva convention? That is, after all, one of the bulwarks which will ensure that these executive orders are given proper scrutiny in future. They could then see what the obligations are in law and come to their own conclusions. What consideration has the Minister given to our counterterrorism strategy? Does she accept that the inability to understand the difference in our own narrative between a faithful Muslim who prays in a mosque each week and lives their lives by the tenets of their faith, and those involved in jihadist activities supporting Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda or ISIS, plays into the hands of those very groups?

My Lords, indeed it is very much the cornerstone of security policy in this country to ensure that one can differentiate between those who effect the outward trappings of devotion and those who have faith, and that one can determine who is a threat to security and who is not. Regarding advice on legal matters, as far as I am aware, the law officers advise the UK Government about their own legal responsibilities. However, my expectation is that there would be discussions at an international level—say, in the United Nations—on the implications of the United States’ actions. That would be for the United Nations to decide, not this country. I do not think we could have made clearer the UK Government’s view on this divisive and wrong policy.

My Lords, the Minister seems to be saying that there is not much opposition to President Trump visiting the United Kingdom. I have just left a demonstration in Whitehall involving thousands of people. They streamed over into Parliament Square saying, “We do not want this visit. We do not want to embarrass our sovereign, ourselves and our Parliament by having him here”. This is not happening just in London. If you went to Bangor, Aberystwyth, Swansea or Cardiff tonight, you would find demonstrations there and everywhere. I imagine that there will be as many as 50 or 60 demonstrations going on throughout the United Kingdom. Is the Minister aware of people’s feelings about what is happening in the United States, and that we do not want to be tarred with the same brush?

My Lords, I think Hansard will make it clear that I said nothing of the sort. With regard to the state visit, I said that I expected that British people would act with dignity, which can encompass making one’s view known. In this country we have freedom of expression, which is a great privilege not enjoyed by all countries around the world. I wish that it were.

My Lords, the noble Baroness spoke about those who have indefinite leave to remain, and how they may be treated in the future. Will UK consular services be available to those with indefinite leave to remain who may get caught up in additional screening at their port of entry? In the past, we have had consular access in certain cases for not just foreign citizens but those with indefinite leave to remain. Can she shed any light on that?

I will certainly make inquiries about that. As the noble Baroness is aware more than most, having been a Minister with responsibility for these matters, normally the guidance is that those in our posts around the world give information and advice only to those who hold British passports. There is the added inhibition that we do not normally provide consular assistance to those who hold dual nationality in countries which do not recognise that dual nationality. However, we do waive that in certain cases and provide advice and assistance, as in the case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I will make inquiries about the specific matter of those who are not nationals or dual nationals and do not hold a British passport but have the legal right to remain.