Impact of Latest Travel Ban on International Students Unclear

The Trump administration’s revised executive order temporarily suspending travel by people from six predominantly Muslim countries could affect an estimated 15,000 international students.

Of those, about 12,000 come from Iran, which is one of the countries named in the ban.

Students who have valid visas are not expected to be affected.

“The new order signed today … [applies] only to foreign nationals outside the United States who do not have a valid visa,” said Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly. “It is important to note that nothing in this executive order effects current lawful permanent residents or persons with current authorization to enter our country.”

“If you have a current valid visa to travel, we welcome you,” Kelly wrote in a release from DHS.

However, it remains unclear what impact the order will have on students who will need to renew their U.S. visa to continue their studies.

Peter Asaad, an immigration attorney and partner at Quarles and Brady in Washington, advised that “although the executive order purportedly will not automatically invalidate current unexpired visas, individuals from the six countries should be advised to refrain from exiting the U.S. when possible.”

“And those outside the U.S. should seek to enter as soon as possible until there is greater clarity,” Asaad said.

There are more than a million international students in the U.S., a number that has nearly doubled in the past decade.

Several well-known universities pushed back against the original executive order announced in January, which was later suspended following legal challenges.

Some 17 universities filed legal papers February 13 against the first travel ban, calling it “serious and chilling” to international education. They included Brown, Columbia, Harvard, John Hopkins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Yale.

“The new travel ban will surely get litigated,” Asaad said. “The court will look at whether there is a rational basis for the travel ban, which may again stop the president’s action under the same rationale as the Washington District Court’s nationwide ban.”

Students took to social media to air their opinions.

“There have been more deaths from vending machines falling over than from the nationals of 6 Muslim-majority countries,” tweeted Ali Nazari, a student at the University of Texas-Dallas, in response to the latest executive order.

The U.S. green card is available to international students who show exceptional ability in the sciences, arts or business, and who can certify that they have a job offer. The U.S. limits those EB-2 visas to 40,000 holders each year. Students may obtain a green card through family channels, as well, by being the spouse, minor child, married or unmarried son or daughter, or brother or sister of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or older.

They may also be priority workers through an EB-1 visa if they have extraordinary abilities or are outstanding professors or researchers on a tenure track position.

In addition to green card holders, those excluded from the new restrictions are dual nationals using passports from unaffected countries; persons with valid U.S. visas or other travel documents; persons on diplomatic or similar passports; and persons who have been granted asylum in the U.S.

Consular officers may also make exceptions on a case-by-case basis for individuals with business, study or family connections to the United States. Individuals already in the United States are also excluded.

The new order includes a temporary halt to refugee admissions and approval for admissions for 120 days. Some exceptions are possible, but they are limited. The order also calls for refugee admissions for all of 2017 to be capped at 50,000. This could be called a “refugee cap” or “refugee limit.”

Last year, international students added $32.4 billion to the U.S. economy.

VOA interns Devon Sgubin, Elly Kim and Hitender Rao contributed to this report. Hitender is a journalist with Hindustan Times and is studying in the U.S. as a Fulbright Fellow.

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US House Republicans Announce Bill to Repeal ‘Obamacare’

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives unveiled long-awaited legislation on Monday to repeal much of the Obamacare healthcare law, including its expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor.

 

President Donald Trump and fellow Republicans in Congress have repeatedly promised to repeal and replace former Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement known as the 2010 Affordable Care Act. It was not immediately clear if the bill had enough support to pass the Republican-led Congress. It goes next to two House committees for review.

The proposal would freeze enrollment in Obamacare’s expanded Medicaid program on January 1, 2020. States that expanded Medicaid could still sign up individuals until the end of 2019, and continue to receive enhanced federal funds for them thereafter, Republican aides said. But going forward, federal funds for Medicaid would be capped.

While eliminating the income-based subsidies for purchasing insurance under Obamacare, the proposal would instead offer age-based refundable tax credits. Those would be capped at upper-income levels, Republican aides said.

The proposal would repeal most Obamacare-levied taxes in January 2018 and immediately repeal the penalty for the individual and employer mandates to buy insurance. It would not, however, cap the existing tax exemption for employer-sponsored health insurance, although some lawmakers had favored that.

“Our legislation transfers power from Washington back to the American people,” House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady said in a statement.

Democrats have warned that Republicans risk throwing the entire U.S. healthcare system into chaos by repealing the Obamacare law that was passed by congressional Democrats over united Republican opposition. The law enabled about 20 million previously uninsured people to get medical insurance.

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FBI Chief Asks Justice Dept to Dispute Trump’s Obama-Era Wiretap Claims

U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey asked the Justice Department to dispute President Donald Trump’s allegation that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on telephones at Trump Tower in New York last year.

U.S. officials who spoke to the Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times said Comey’s request followed Trump’s accusation on Twitter Saturday that included a comparison to former President Richard Nixon, who resigned amid scandal in 1974.  Trump has offered no evidence to support his claim.

What is not clear is why Comey did not dispute the statement himself.  As FBI director under Obama, his department has been a lead in the ongoing investigation of Russian influence on last year’s election.

Accusations dismissed 

Under U.S. law, a president cannot order someone’s phone to be wiretapped.  Such a move would require approval by a federal judge and be based on reasonable grounds to suspect why a citizen’s telephone calls should be monitored.

Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called Trump’s charge simply false.

“There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate or against his campaign,” Clapper told NBC’s Meet the Press.

WATCH: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on wire tap allegations​

In addition to the FBI probe, the House and Senate intelligence committees are carrying out their own investigations, including looking into what cyber activities Russia directed at the U.S. and whether those efforts had links between Russian officials and people connected to U.S. political campaigns.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said in a statement Sunday his committee “will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates.”

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, said Trump’s accusation was based on “conspiracy-based news.”

“For a president of the United States to make such an incendiary charge – and one that discredits our democracy in the eyes of the world – is as destructive as it was baseless,” Schiff said.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement Sunday saying the president is requesting the committees to “determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.”  He added that neither Trump nor the White House would offer further comment “until such oversight is conducted.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Trump has no proof and is trying to shift conversation from Russia to Obama.

“This is called the wrap-up smear,” she told CNN.  “You make up something, then you have the press write about it and then you say everybody’s writing about this charge.  It’s a tool of an authoritarian to just have you always be talking about what you want them to be talking about.”

Senator Marco Rubio told NBC that Trump “will have to answer as to what exactly” he was referring to in making the claim that his phones were tapped.

WATCH: White House Demands Probe of Alleged Trump Tower Wiretap

Alleged Russia connection hard to shake

The publisher of the Newsmax Media website, Christopher Ruddy – a friend of Trump’s – wrote Sunday the president told him, “This will be investigated. It will all come out. I will be proven right.”

Ruddy said he has never seen Trump this angry in a long time.

A U.S. intelligence report concluded Russia carried out a campaign at the direction of President Vladimir Putin that used cyber attacks and other methods to influence the U.S. election campaign with the aspiration of helping Trump’s chances of beating Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.

Trump has denied any links to Russia.

His first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned last month after information emerged that he had lied to top officials about the nature of his own conversations with the Russian ambassador.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to remove himself from any investigation into the Russian activities after reports emerged that he met twice last year with the ambassador, yet said at his confirmation hearing in January that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”

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Republicans Expected to Unveil Health Care Bill this Week

Republican U.S. lawmakers expect to unveil this week the text of long-awaited legislation to repeal and replace the Obamacare health care law, one of President Donald Trump’s top legislative priorities, a senior Republican congressional aide said on Sunday.

Since taking office in January, Trump has pressed his fellow Republicans who control Congress to act quickly to dismantle former Democratic President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and pass a plan to replace it, but lawmakers in the party have differed on the specifics.

Democrats have warned that Republicans risk throwing the entire U.S. health care system into chaos by repealing the 2010 law that was passed by congressional Democrats over united Republican opposition. Republicans condemn it as a government overreach, and Trump has called it a “disaster.”

The aide cited progress in meetings and phone calls starting on Friday and lasting through the weekend involving House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, Trump domestic policy adviser Andrew Bremberg and others.

“We are in a very good place right now, and while drafting continues, we anticipate the release of final bill text early this week,” said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The aide called the expected bill a “consensus Republican plan,” but offered no details.

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, said: “We are now at the culmination of a years-long process to keep our promise to the American people.”

The Obamacare law has proven popular in many states, even some controlled by Republicans, and it enabled about 20 million previously uninsured people to get medical insurance, although premium increases angered some.

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White House Demands Probe of Alleged Trump Tower Wiretap

Washington is engulfed by a dizzying flurry of contradictory statements and rampant speculation over whether federal authorities wiretapped Donald Trump’s telephones during last year’s presidential campaign. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the White House is demanding ongoing investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election be expanded to probe whether the FBI spied on Trump at the behest of the Obama administration.

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Spokesman Denies Obama Administration Wiretapped Trump

President Donald Trump’s administration has not reacted to a spokesman’s denial that former President Barack Obama ordered a telephone tap on Trump during the campaign before last year’s U.S. elections.

Obama’s spokesman issued a statement after a series of tweets by Trump early Saturday morning alleged that Obama “had my wires tapped in Trump Tower” in New York City before the November 2016 presidential election.

An aide to Obama said Trump’s allegations were “simply false.”

Trump did not cite any source for his claims, or provide any evidence that electronic surveillance occurred, but he likened the supposed intrusion on his privacy to the Watergate political scandal that eventually led to the 1974 resignation of former U.S. President Richard Nixon.

The scandal began as a series of political “dirty tricks” aimed at the Democratic Party by Nixon’s Republicans, and it expanded after a White House official disclosed that Nixon had authorized an extensive monitoring operation at the White House, recording a large number of telephone calls.

No official in the White House during the Obama administration “ever interfered with any investigation led by the Justice Department,” said Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the former president, emphasizing that prohibition was a “cardinal rule.”

In a statement, Lewis said neither “President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”  

VOA asked White House officials for a comment on Saturday’s developments but did not receive an immediate response. Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department had any relevant statements.

FBI sought warrant

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) permits legal surveillance and collection of information between foreign countries and their agents.

The FBI sought and was granted in October a FISA court warrant for an investigation into suspected ties between Russia and people connected to the Trump campaign, according to two sources and previous news reports.  

The Justice Department believed four Americans were “unwitting agents” of Russia; there was “probable cause they had been co-opted, and that was the basis for the warrant” granted by the court, according to a lawyer specializing in national security matters, Bradley Moss, who spoke with VOA.  

An earlier similar request by the FBI, wider in scope, apparently had been made to the secret court four months earlier, but was rejected. “That’s largely unheard of,” Moss said.

Search targeted contributions

The FBI and other federal investigators “follow the facts, and the assumption was this was about money … and that would have gone through Trump Tower,” added Moss, who is also the deputy executive director of the James Madison Project, an organization focused on promoting government accountability and reduction of secrecy.

Ben Rhodes, a former top national security aide to Obama, said in a Twitter message directed at Trump on Saturday that “no president can order a wiretap,” and added, “Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”

The highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland, said if the Obama administration did monitor activities at Trump Tower, it would indeed have needed authorization from the FISA court.

“That’s why we have the FISA courts,” Cardin said Saturday on CNN. “The executive branch cannot act on its own. They must get the consent of a court before they can do those types of activities.”

Graham ‘very worried’

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not endorse Trump’s claims but said Saturday that if the Trump campaign was wiretapped in New York, “it would be the biggest political scandal since Watergate.”

“I’m very worried that our president is suggesting that the former president has done something illegally,” Graham added at a boisterous town hall meeting in Clemson, South Carolina. “I would be very worried if, in fact, the Obama administration was able to obtain a warrant, lawfully, about Trump campaign activity with foreign governments. So it’s my job as a United States senator to get to the bottom of this.”

It is unknown whether Obama was aware in advance that his Justice Department was pursuing FISA court approvals.

“I certainly expect he would have been advised” at some stage, Moss said.

Republican Senator Ben Sasse called Trump’s allegations serious, and said if he was illegally tapped, the president should explain what sort of tap it was and how he knew about it.

Representative Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump was making “the most outlandish and destructive claims without providing a scintilla of evidence to support them.”

Meetings with Russian ambassador

It was disclosed earlier this week that Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak met at Trump Tower in New York in December with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and with since-ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn was fired after just 24 days on the job when information emerged that he had lied to top officials about the nature of his conversations with Kislyak.

Revelations of the Trump Tower meetings surfaced after Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted earlier in the week he’d met twice with Kislyak during last year’s presidential campaign.

Sessions had failed to disclose those talks during his Senate confirmation hearing. He has since said he would stay out of any federal investigation of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and is expected to amend on Monday his written testimony response.

White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Thursday that the meetings at Trump Tower were intended to “establish a line of communication” between the incoming administration and the Russian ambassador. She added that Kushner also met with representatives of as many as two dozen other countries.

Investigations on the increase

U.S. government officials meet with representatives of foreign governments on many occasions and for many reasons. The Trump administration, however, had denied for months there was any contact between Russian officials and the new president’s campaign.

On Friday, the Breitbart News website published a report about conservative radio host Mark Levin’s allegation that Obama conducted what he called a “silent coup” against Trump by employing “police state” tactics. Trump’s top strategic adviser at the White House, Stephen Bannon, previously had been executive chairman of Breitbart.

Trump’s latest claims come as the Trump administration faces mounting pressure from multiple FBI and congressional investigations into contacts between members of his campaign team and Russian officials.

“I still don’t know if there’s any fire, but there’s smoke here,” national security lawyer Moss told VOA.

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With a New Administration, American Comedy Group Creates New Jokes

“I am the most presidential person you will ever see,” says a man in a dark suit and red tie, sounding much like President Donald Trump. He’s sporting Trump’s characteristic hairdo, but exaggerated, resembling more of the teased bouffant style popular in the 1960s.

The audience at this performance in Washington laughs at this “fake” Trump, who adds, “Millions of women marched after my inauguration, one day in office, and I have already managed to get more middle aged women off the couch than Michelle’s (Obama) ‘get up and move’ campaign did in 8 years!”He looks at his cellphone as two women beside him sing, “tweet, tweet.”

 

These are the Capitol Steps, a Washington political satire comedy group, which for 35 years has been poking fun at political officials, including 5 past presidents.And now, with a new chief executive in town, the group has created fresh skits and songs for their performances, which are held mostly in Washington.

“We take an existing song and put new words to it,” explains Elaina Newport, a founding member of the group, who helps write the material.“We’ll try to have a good pun and find something that makes fun of the politician.”

Seeking the spotlight

 

Instead of being offended, Newport says most politicians “think it’s funny, and want to show the public they have a good sense of humor.”

 

She recalls that George H.W. Bush, president from 1989-1993, was an especially good sport. “We went to the White House to perform and we were being careful not to do anything that would offend him,” Newport says.“After the show he came up on stage and said ‘I know you have more songs about me.I want to see them.’”Another time, she says, he “got on stage and sang with us.”

 

But one U.S. senator actually got mad, she says and laughs, “because we didn’t have any songs about him in the show.”

 

Newport points out that the jokes are not meant to be mean.

 

“We could do most of the songs “right in front of the person that they’re about,” she says. “We’ve always had a tradition of being bi-partisan, getting everybody.” 

That includes Hillary Clinton, whose Capitol Steps portrayal responds to her email scandal by singing, “I’m not indicted and I’m so excited,” to the catchy music of the 1982 Pointer Sisters hit, “I’m So Excited.” Former president Bill Clinton is depicted wearing a hat and dark sunglasses, and saying he never asked for wife’s email “because I was too afraid that she’d ask me for mine.”

 

A confident, bare-chested Russian president, Vladimir Putin, dances across the stage singing “Putin on a Blitz,” instead of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

 

Laughter and applause

The political humor found a receptive audience.

 

“I think that we just need to sit back and laugh about it every now and then,” says Mary Tomei, a high school student from New York.

 

“A little more irreverence would do the country good. It helps to laugh at yourself,” agrees Bob McCunney from Boston.

 

Besides giving audiences a good laugh, Newport hopes the Capitol Steps can help ease tensions in a very politically divided America. “I think political satire can make us all relax and get along better, and even if you disagree with the person sitting next to you at the show, you can laugh at the same jokes.” 

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With a New Administration, an American Comedy Group Creates New Jokes

For more than three decades, a Washington comedy group called the Capitol Steps has been giving people a good laugh at the expense of political officials, U.S. presidents and people in the news. VOA’s Deborah Block went to a recent performance in Washington and tells us there’s plenty to laugh about in DC.

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Trump Supporters Hold Nationwide Rallies

Backers of President Donald Trump were scheduled to hold rallies across the country Saturday.

The “Spirit of America” rallies are being organized by a group called the Main Street Patriots, which is made up of some of the same people that founded the Tea Party movement eight years ago to voice concerns about the way the federal government operates.

Debbie Dooley, a leader of the group and co-founder of the Tea Party, told Time magazine the rallies planned for Saturday are meant to be a positive response to recent negative events held by Trump’s political rivals.

“This is not a Tea Party rally,” she told Time. “We’re not anti-this and anti-that. We’re very focused on not having negative signs, making sure they’re positive and upbeat.”

Ralph King, a founder of the Main Street Patriots, told Cleveland.com, though, he thinks the rallies are meant to shame Republicans who haven’t embraced Trump, more so than to counter Democrat opposition.

“Donald Trump’s biggest road block is going to be the Republicans,” King told the website.

Rich Black, a rally organizer in Berkeley, California, told the local CBS station in that city, the rally there is also meant to serve as “a march for free speech,” in response to violent protests at the University of California Berkeley last month that forced conservative writer Milo Yiannopolous to cancel a scheduled speaking engagement.

“This cannot go unchallenged anymore,” Black told the TV station. “What you saw on Feb 1, innocent people including bystanders being physically assaulted by these thugs. Let’s call it what it is.”

At least 60 pro-Trump rallies are scheduled to take place in cities across America Saturday, in large cities like Washington, towns like Conway, South Carolina (population: 19,000), and cities as far removed as Honolulu, Hawaii.

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Trump Accuses Obama of Pre-election Wiretapping

President Donald Trump has accused his predecessor, Barack Obama, of wiretapping his offices at Trump Tower in New York City before the November 2016 presidential election.

In a series of tweets Saturday, Trump likened the alleged wiretaps to the Watergate political scandal that eventually led to the resignation of former president Richard Nixon in 1974.

Trump did not offer proof of any wiretaps. Obama’s office has not responded to the accusations.

In a tweet, former National Security Agency analyst and counter-intelligence officer John Schindler suggested the president’s accusations may pertain to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), which permits the legal surveillance and collection of information between foreign countries and their agents.

The highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, said if the Obama administration did surveil activities at Trump Tower, it would have needed authorization from the FISA court.

“That’s why we have the FISA courts,” Cardin said Saturday on CNN. “The executive branch cannot act on its own. They must get the consent of a court before they can do those types of activities.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Saturday if the campaign was wiretapped at Trump Tower, “It would be the biggest political scandal since Watergate.”

“I’m very worried,” Graham added at a town hall in Clemson, South Carolina. “I’m very worried that our president is suggesting that the former president has done something illegally. I would be very worried if, in fact, the Obama administration was able to obtain a warrant, lawfully, about Trump campaign activity with foreign governments. So it’s my job, as a United States senator, to get to the bottom of this.”

It was disclosed earlier this week that Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak met at Trump Tower in New York in December with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and with since-ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn was fired after just 24 days on the job when information emerged that he had lied to top officials about the nature of his conversations with Kislyak.

Revelations of the Trump Tower meetings surfaced after Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted earlier in the week he met twice with Kislyak during last year’s presidential campaign and failed to disclose those talks during his Senate confirmation hearing. Sessions has since said he would stay out of any federal investigation of alleged Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election.

White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Thursday the meetings at Trump Tower were intended to “establish a line of communication” between the incoming administration and the Russian ambassador. She added that Kushner also met with representatives of as many as two dozen other countries.

U.S. government officials meet with representatives of foreign governments on many occasions and for many reasons, but the Trump administration had denied for months there was any contact between Russian officials and the new president’s campaign.

On Friday, the Breitbart News website published a report about conservative radio host Mark Levin’s allegation that Obama conducted what he called a “silent coup” of the president by employing “police state” tactics. The article alleged the Obama administration took steps in its waning days to “undermine Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and, later, his new administration. Trump’s White House strategic advisor Stephen Bannon was once the executive chairman of Breitbart before being appointed to his current position.

The claims come as the Trump administration faces mounting pressure from multiple FBI and congressional investigations into contacts between members of his campaign team and Russian officials.

Senator Cardin, who received classified information from the outgoing Obama administration about Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential elections, has called for an independent investigation into meetings Attorney General Jeff Sessions had with the Russian ambassador.

VOA’s White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman contributed to this report.

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