Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, left, walks with Joshua Wisch, right, special assistant to the attorney general, Monday, May 15, 2017, outside a federal courthouse in Seattle. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Monday in Seattle over Hawaii's lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump's revised travel ban, which would suspend the nation's refugee program and temporarily bar new visas for citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Story highlights

Courts have blocked Trump's travel ban on six Muslim countries

The new regulations allow embassies to create their own criteria

Washington CNN  — 

The Trump administration has approved intensified screening measures for visa applicants trying to reach the US, even as multiple federal courts have blocked its travel ban against six Muslim-majority countries.

The State Department released new guidance to embassies worldwide on Thursday – the same day a federal appeals court upheld an indefinite freeze on President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which sought to temporarily block people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the US.

The new measures, approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget May 23, give consular officers broad discretion to apply stricter criteria to certain applicants, demanding more background material than required of typical applicants about their families, where they’ve lived and worked, and their social media use, among other things.

Administration lawyers told a federal court earlier this month that the White House has complied with a Hawaii-based judge’s ruling that means it can’t treat nationals from the selected countries differently. But the newly approved measures show the Trump administration has continued to seek ways to apply more rigorous screening to individuals who want to travel to the US.

“Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats,” the State Department says in the cable to embassies that was viewed by CNN.

“As part of our work to constantly improve screening and vetting of visa applicants and to implement the President’s March 6 Memorandum on heightened screening and vetting, the Department instructed posts to immediately take a number of steps,” the cable reads.

A State Department spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment on internal communications, but added that in accordance with the President’s memo, the department has “begun collecting additional information from certain applicants worldwide, when a consular officer determines more information is needed.”

A Justice Department spokesman referred questions to the departments of State and Homeland Security.

How far can the administration go?

Trump campaigned on the idea of a travel ban, sparking criticism that the idea ran counter to American values and concern that it amounted to profiling. As a candidate, Trump had called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

By August 2016, he was talking about the idea of “extreme vetting” and ideological tests to filter out “any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles.”

A revised travel ban was announced in March, accompanied by the presidential memo, but never got off the ground because federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland blocked it just hours before it was set to go into effect.

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The ban would have prohibited people from the six countries from entering the US for 90 days and would have stopped all refugees from entering for 120 days.

The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Thursday upheld a lower court’s nationwide block of the travel ban, saying it was based on religious discrimination. The administration has said it plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. During oral arguments on May 4, the Justice Department told the court the Trump administration has been unable to conduct any meaningful vetting of screening procedures used by the six countries as a result of the court-ordered halt.

Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, arguing on behalf of the Trump administration, maintained it has complied with the order from the federal judge in Hawaii blocking the travel ban. That ruling also forbid the administration from conducting “a review of the vetting procedures” with respect to the six countries the ban covered.

“If they show up at a consulate, and they are otherwise eligible for a visa, you have to give it to them, just as you would a nation of France or Germany. What you can’t do is say I’m going to suspend your entry unless you qualify for a waiver,” Wall said during oral arguments, describing the impact of blocking the travel ban.

“We’ve complied with that injunction, we’ve put our pens down, we haven’t done any work on it, so the 90-day period in our view hasn’t been able to run at all,” Wall added,

CNN has learned that just four days earlier, on May 4, the State Department asked OMB to approve measures that would give embassies the latitude to create their own criteria for putting applicants through more rigorous screening.

The cable directs embassies worldwide to identify criteria for visa applicants to get increased scrutiny related to potential terrorism, espionage, proliferation, or other ineligibilities. Any applicants who would ordinarily be eligible for a visa, but now meet the new local criteria, have to go through the increased screening.

Questions include the applicants travel history, addresses and jobs over the last 15 years; the names of siblings, children or former spouses; and all phone numbers and “public-facing” social media accounts used in the last five years.

The locally determined criteria will be reviewed, the cable says, “to evaluate whether the characteristics identified by post are reasonably related to assessing threat or assessing visa eligibility under standards established under US law… and are not tied to national origin or religion.”

The cable continues, reminding embassies that “visas may not be denied on the basis of race religion, ethnicity, national origin, political views, gender or sexual orientation.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 12:  U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions attends an event at the Justice Department May 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Sessions was presented with an award "honoring his support of law enforcement" by the Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City during the event, but did not comment on recent events surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
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