Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Chinese Communist Party members and their families may face new restrictions on traveling to the U.S. that would be a dramatic expansion of current limits.

Why it matters: U.S. law, on paper at least, has long prohibited CCP members from immigrating, but the proposed policy could gut people-to-people ties between the two countries and mark a near-break in diplomatic relations.

Driving the news: The Trump administration is considering banning CCP members and their families from entering the United States, according to a New York Times report.

  • It would invoke the same provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act as President Trump's 2017 travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries.
  • The ban could apply to as many as 270 million Chinese people, according to an administration estimate.

But such a broad measure is raft with problems.

  • It doesn't take into account the fact that party membership in a one-party state is a structural part of life for many people that is often necessary to have a successful career. It's also a primary way to participate in community organizing.
  • Membership can even provide some political protection for people who want to push the boundaries. Some well-known critics of CCP policies, such as now-jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, have been party members.
  • Party membership usually isn't publicly disclosed, especially among the rank and file, making it difficult for U.S. consular and border officials to check the veracity of some applications.
  • Yes, but: Party membership would likely be identifiable in enough situations to have a major deterrent effect on party members attempting to visit the U.S.

What they're saying: Analysts have widely criticized the proposal as discriminatory, needlessly broad and harmful.

  • Such a move would more or less augur “an end of the [U.S.-China] bilateral relationship,” Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, told the South China Morning Post.
  • It could damage people-to-people exchanges, gut academic programs, hinder business deals and separate Chinese families, as well as make face-to-face meetings between top U.S. and Chinese officials fraught with logistical difficulties.

Background: U.S. immigration law contains a decades-old provision making anyone affiliated with a communist party ineligible for a green card or citizenship.

  • But in practice, "very few people get excluded on the basis of party membership," Gary Chodorow, a U.S. immigration attorney in Beijing, told Axios.
  • That's due to a variety of factors, including light enforcement, waivers and because the immigrant visa form only asks about current, not past, membership.
  • "A person could truthfully answer that question, no I’m not a member, if they quit yesterday," said Chodorow.
  • The proposed policy would expand this ban to both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, such as tourist, study and work visas.

Beijing has dealt with this restriction for decades. The CCP has a set procedure that allows members to apply to have their party membership canceled in advance of temporary travel abroad.

  • The process allows party members to remain in good standing so that they can rejoin the party after they return.
  • Party members often aren't able to fulfill membership requirements while abroad, such as participating in meetings and paying dues, so this procedure gives members the ability to go abroad without facing disciplinary action for allowing their membership to lapse.
  • But the procedure also benefits party members who are traveling to countries where membership could cause them problems.

The big picture: The Trump administration has already placed numerous travel restrictions on Chinese people from a variety of groups and backgrounds.

  • All Chinese nationals in the U.S. on a journalist visa must apply for visa renewal every 90 days.
  • Chinese graduate students pursuing degrees in certain sensitive science and technology fields must now renew their visas each year.
  • The State Department restricts visas for CCP officials deemed complicit in China's authoritarian takeover of Hong Kong or in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
  • On July 15, the State Department also announced visa bans for certain employees of Chinese tech companies involved in human rights abuses.

The bottom line: As U.S-China rivalry heats up, it's getting harder and harder for citizens of both countries to travel between the two, threatening the economic, educational, cultural and family ties that have formed the foundation of the bilateral relationship for decades.

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