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Newly Released Data Reveals Extent of Unwarranted Revocations of Trusted Traveler Status under the Muslim Ban

By Matthew Callahan

By now we are all aware of the confusion and chaos that surrounded the roll out of President Trump’s first Muslim ban—the January 27, 2017 executive order that banned travel to the U.S. for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries. There is, however, an aspect of the implementation of the Muslim ban that has received far less attention: the ways in which the Trump administration has improperly and summarily revoked (and likely continues to revoke) Trusted Traveler Program credentials like Global Entry from people with ties to predominantly Muslim countries without review or cause.

Recently released information—obtained by Muslim Advocates after we filed a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request and then sued the federal government for documents and data about Trusted Traveler programs—reveals both the extent of the chaos and the ongoing impact of Trusted Traveler revocations on persons from or with connections to Muslim-majority countries.

Click here to read a fact sheet summarizing some of our findings.

CBP Summarily Revoked Hundreds of Trusted Traveler Program Credentials After the Ban.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (“CBP”) implemented Trusted Traveler Programs in 2015 to minimize the need to repeatedly screen passengers who posed little or no security risk. Such programs include NEXUS (which covers travel between the U.S. and Canada), FAST (which covers commercial carriers between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico) and Global Entry (which covers international travel to countries other than Canada and Mexico).

In the immediate aftermath of the first Muslim ban, we at Muslim Advocates started hearing stories of travelers from Muslim-majority countries who had their Trusted Traveler credentials summarily revoked. We now know that those stories were not aberrations: starting in early 2017, hundreds of travelers—including lawful permanent residents (i.e., green card holders) and U.S. citizens with dual citizenship—saw their Trusted Traveler memberships revoked solely on account of their national origin. Documents produced in the litigation reveal that CBP officials combed through thousands of approved passengers, manually revoking the Trusted Traveler credentials of hundreds with ties to the countries listed in the ban. One document shows that between January 27, 2017 (the day the President signed the Muslim ban) to January 31, 2017, CBP has revoked or denied Trusted Traveler credentials for over 400 individuals.

A number of legal advocacy groups quickly sued to stop the Muslim ban, and courts across the country almost immediately began to issue injunctions ordering the government to cease its implementation. In light of these court orders, the White House issued a directive clarifying the scope of the ban, including that it should not apply to lawful permanent residents. (The President would, of course, go on to issue two revised versions of the Muslim ban in the following months.). As a result of these court orders, and the clarification from the White House, it was clear CBP had no reason to revoke Trusted Traveler credentials, and that many, if not all, of their recent revocations were made in error.

But despite these court orders and the clarification from the White House, CBP did not act to immediately restore all of the canceled credentials, as revealed in a February 6, 2017 e-mail conversation between two CBP employees:

“Due to the current injunction are all previously canceled NEXUS and FAST cards going to be reinstated?”

“If the injunction is expected to hold we can reinstate, but it will take some time…. My recommendation is that we should only act now if we do not expect a change, not because there is a workload, but because [of] the attention it will draw.”

While CBP has maintained that it did go on to restore all those credentials in the following days, this exchange makes clear that, just as it did in other contexts, CBP looked for opportunities to slow-walk its reinstatement of travelers who never should have been revoked in the first place—just to avoid negative attention.

“Garbage” Data in CBP’s Computer System Led to Additional Hurdles in CBP’s Efforts to Reinstate Trusted Travelers Credentials.

Despite its general approach to slow-walk the process, CBP did eventually move to reinstate Trusted Traveler credentials for the hundreds of passengers whose credentials it had already revoked. But the documents we received reveal that CBP’s efforts were largely unsuccessful due to the fact that the underlying data about travelers’ credentials was unreliable. CBP’s efforts to reorganize the data led to it deleting some of the data it needed to create an automated process.

When CBP contractors attempted to build a system to automatically reinstate the credentials, one opened up a profile and found that “[T]he very first one I look at is all messed up. Subject has a Canad[ia]n citizenship cert[ificate] on file, but citizenship was never updated in GES profile, and card was printed as an Iranian.” The employee added: “This is going to be fun :)”

One employee speculated that “we may have wiped all the other citizenship data, losing information on where there was an additional (i.e. US or Canad[ian] citizenship claimed.” An automated system for reinstatement would not work, the officer noted, “if the underlying data is garbage.”

While CBP’s internal emails eventually claimed that it restored all the affected credentials one-by-one, doubts about the reliability of the data raises the possibility that the agency’s effort to restore the credentials missed some passengers—who may still have their credentials revoked for no reason other than their national origin.

CBP Was on Pace to Revoke a Record Number of Global Entry Credentials Following the Muslim Ban.

Even after the first iteration of the Muslim ban was rescinded by President Trump, CBP has continued to target enrollees in Trusted Traveler Programs. The number of travelers who have seen their Trusted Traveler credentials revoked has climbed significantly in the first several months of 2017—without any public explanation by officials. These statistics and others can be found in our Trusted Traveler Fact Sheet.

Based on the information received thus far, the Global Entry program was on pace to have the highest number of revocations ever in FY2017. In the three months before the Muslim Ban, the average number of Global Entry revocations per day was only 6.16. In the six months after the Muslim Ban, that number jumped to 15.46 per day. There is no reason to think that new credentials were being added at a higher rate to match the rate of revocations—and the most recently-released data from the U.S. Commerce Department shows that Global Entry applications were declining precipitously toward the end of that period. The government has yet to provide a public explanation for this increase in the rate of revocations.

Significantly, the data we obtained from CBP shows that travelers born in Muslim-majority countries were especially likely to have their credentials revoked. For example, there was a 74% increase in revocations for persons of Iranian origin and a 200% increase for persons of Pakistani origin. In the three months before the Muslim ban, no one born in Somalia had their credentials revoked; in the five months after the Ban, eleven did. The average number of revocations increased for persons born in each of the seven countries targeted by the Muslim ban.

Conclusion

At Muslim Advocates, we are still receiving additional information from CBP, and as such the analysis above is preliminary and may evolve as we gather additional documents. But what is crystal clear at this point is that after the first Muslim ban was issued, CBP changed how it handles revocations of credentials—and that it has done so without informing the public.

Matthew Callahan is a staff attorney at Muslim Advocates