U.S. President Donald Trump — who ran for office on a promise to bar Muslims from entering the country — issued an executive order on Jan. 27 temporarily blocking entry by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. Recently, a court ruling has temporarily blocked that ban, so for now, citizens from those countries can travel as normal.
This heated showdown between the courts, the White House and the federal departments responsible for enforcing the ban, means that its fate is far from settled yet. There has been overwhelming reception from the United States about this controversial ban, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City displaying the diversity-oriented artworks, and actors of acclaimed films La La Land and Moonlight, Emma Stone and Mahershala Ali, making pro-immigrant statements at the Screen Actors Guild awards last month as they won Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor award respectively.
Despite the astounding impact of this ban, within the government there is still a lot of confusion about who’s affected by this law and precisely what it means. So, here’s a closer look on what the Executive Order actually says.
First, the order bans for ninety days all immigrant and non-immigrant entry into the United States from all citizens from seven nations — Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. These seven nations seem to have been chosen since they were cited in 2015 and 2016 laws, signed by the President Obama, that required residents of those countries to get a visa to visit the United States. However, the Executive Order states they cannot enter the United States even with a visa, although there are a few exceptions for diplomats. So what does this mean? Well, for an Iranian professor at Yale, it means that if she leaves the United States, she will not be allowed to return to the United States, even though she is a well known opponent of the Iranian regime. For a doctor who is abroad battling a polio outbreak, it meant denied entry into the U.S. despite his visa. Those probably sound like targeted examples of hard-luck stories, but because people from those countries already needed visas with specific reasons to visit the United States, like visiting a family member, studying, or working at a specialized field, almost all the stories are hard-luck stories.
The Executive Order, initially, also seemed to apply to legal, permanent residents of the United States, who are not citizens — so called “green card” holders, although the language in the order is extremely hard to parse, even to those within the government. At one point, Reince Priebus, Trump’s Chief-of-Staff said the order “does not apply” to green card holders, and then later, in the very same interview, said, “of course it does” apply to green card holders. After much confusion and emergency lawsuits, it now appears that permanent residents will not be subject to the ban. It is unclear from the language in the order whether it applies to dual citizens. For instance, if you are a Canadian citizen who was born in Somalia as Canada’s Immigration Minister is, there is confusion as to whether you can enter the U.S.
Now, the critics of this Executive Order, me being one of them, acknowledge and argue that this is a really poorly targeted law. — No foreign nationals from any of these seven countries has killed a single American in a terrorist attack. In general, terrorism in the United States since 9/11 has been exceedingly rare. In the past decade, American civilians are more likely to die by lightning strike than terrorism, and notably, most of the attacks that do happen in the U.S. are carried out by American citizens or permanent residents. Therefore, most attacks wouldn’t be prevented by the order.
Now, the counterargument is that there may be threats from these seven countries we don’t know about, but it’s really hard to prove a negative, like it’s hard for me to prove that I’m not a terrorist, because, how can you be sure I’m not? All of this is why concerns about the ban don’t really fall along traditional left/right lines, like the very conservative Cato Institute, said, for instance, “there is little national security benefit to Trump’s executive order on immigration.” And many, although by no means all, members of Republican Congress and Senate agree. John McCain and Lindsey Graham for instance, released a statement saying the ban may be remembered as a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.
Then there is the second part of the executive order, which affects admission of refugees into the United States. Back in 2011, the Obama Administration dramatically slowed the process of refugee applications from Iraq for six months, an off sided precedent for what Trump announced, but this is very different. Trump is suspending all refugee admission to the United States from all countries for 120 days, and suspending all refugee settlement from Syria indefinitely. This appears to include people who have already been vetted, approved, and received Visas, which is also very different from what happened in 2011.
The executive order also prioritizes “refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution,” which Trump has said will prioritize Christian refugees when the program restarts, although that’s not actually stated in the order and it’s not clear it would be legal. For context, last year, the U.S. accepted about 39,000 Muslim refugees: about 37,000 Christians and 8,500 people of other or no faith.
To be absolutely clear, Muslim refugees who have been vetted and approved for admission to the United States cannot currently get in, but neither can Christian or Buddhist refugees for at least 120 days, nor can interpreters who served with the American armed forces in Iraq because no refugees are being allowed into the United States.
This ban lumps all refugees together, whether they’re from Syria, or South Sudan, or Myanmar , like most refugees resettled in the United States in 2015 were not Syrian, they were Myanmarese. Also, many Syrian refugees are victims of ISIS, who can speak firsthand about its horrors, and that is a moderating force, not a radicalizing one. Imagining Syrians monolithically is as dangerous and simplistic as imagining ending refugee resettlement will solve the U.S.’s security challenges. I share John McCain’s feeling that ultimately, this kind of blanket ban will do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.
Now Trump counters that it will make the U.S. more safe, and he certainly has access to top-secret information that I don’t have access to, but given that these policies wouldn’t have prevented a single U.S. terror fatality from the last 40 years, it’s hard to see exactly how people are safer.
There are also other issues of legal confusion in the order, for instance, the order states, “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the constitution.” But as many law professors have pointed out, that’s kind of ludicrous. I mean, according to that sentence, if you are, for instance, Canadian, and you support a parliamentary system of government over the system outlined in the U.S. Constitution, you are no longer legally allowed to visit Disney World.
Also, when foreigners attempt to enter the United States, as in most countries, they have the right to seek asylum and be interviewed by an immigration officer to determine if the asylum-seeker has a credible fear of persecution. But the executive order explicitly states that no benefits will be extended to citizens of the affected nations when they attempt to enter the United States, and such an interview would probably constitute a benefit.
As of now, it does not appear that people are being allowed to seek asylum, which is in violation of an existing U.S. law called the Immigration and Nationality Act, which an executive order cannot legally override.
In short, no matter how you feel about immigration, this executive order is a hot mess. It is too ambiguous, self-contradictory, and unclear to be an effective law. I want to emphasize that much of this may be moot in three or four months, as parts of the order will expire, but even if that occurs, I worry we’ve already made dangerous statement that the U.S. won’t do its part in the refugee crisis, and that we will discriminate based solely on place of birth.
I think it’s a mistake to imagine a diverse group of over 100 million people to be terrifying, and it only encourages us to think about them as a people group to be feared.
It’s hard to imagine people complexly, especially when you’re being told to fear them, but I’ve found it helpful to listen. So I’ve attached a few videos with refugees telling their stories. I’d ask you to listen to them, to believe them, and to see them as people instead of merely as threats.