On Friday, President Donald Trump set into motion the fulfillment of one of his cornerstone campaign promises—restricting the entry of refugees and immigrants for the purposes of national security. Advocates for immigrant and refugee rights (and immigrants and refugees themselves) have taken to the streets and to the media, expressing their disappointment and fear, and they have also gone to court. This issue is low-hanging fruit on President Trump’s agenda, and the issue appeals to his populist, America First base.
The executive order, entitled “Protecting the Nation From Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals,” directs federal agencies to block the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for refugees from all countries for 120 days. The refugee resettlement cap (for all refugees) would be lowered from 110,000 to 50,000 in Fiscal Year 2017. The order would also temporarily ban citizens of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia from entering the United States until a review of the visa and refugee vetting process occurs and a more stringent alternative is implemented.
President Trump told ABC News that the list of sanctioned countries are those “that have tremendous terror…countries that people are going to come in and cause us tremendous problems. Our country has enough problems without allowing people to come in who, in many cases or in some cases, are looking to do tremendous destruction.”
He’s actually got matters backwards: citizens in a place like Syria face tremendous terror from Syrian government and Russian warplanes bombarding them daily, but there is no indication that Syrian refugees themselves have brought that terror with them to the countries they have entered—at least not in any numbers.
Since Syrians started fleeing to safety when the Syrian revolution began in 2011, there have been no violent incidents in the United States carried out by a Syrian refugee. You read that right. The number of terrorist attacks in the United States by Syrian refugees is zero.
According to a 2016 study by the CATO Institute, there's only a one in a 3.64 billion chance of being killed in an act of terrorism committed by a refugee of any nationality; that’s a 0.00000003 percent chance of being murdered by a refugee. This does not mean that we face no threat from terrorism, but that threat, which is posed by groups like the Islamic State, must be met head-on by addressing the root cause—the Syrian conflict that has created a power vacuum for extremist elements. Syrian refugees are not the threat; they are, rather, the victims of the threat—the very radical, self-professed Islamic terrorism the Trump administration purports to be protecting us from. The United States, which has historically opened its doors to those fleeing fascism and persecution, at one point hundreds of thousands at a time, is now shutting its doors. The order refers to the refugee reforms as a “realignment.” It is a realignment in somewhat the same sense that a cruise ship refusing help to a passing life raft on the high seas to focus on its paying passengers can be said to be realigning its occupancy priorities.
President Trump’s executive order will do little to enhance our security, but a look in the rearview mirror does not present a rosy picture either. The Obama administration’s refugee vetting process was historically stringent—it took an average of two years for a Syrian refugee to make it through all of the vetting hurdles to be resettled in the United States. The number of Syrian refugees resettled at the end of that process—just over 18,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute—is embarrassingly low in comparison to Canada, Germany, and Sweden, all of which opened their doors to significantly more. U.S. resettlement pales even further in comparison to the responsibility borne by Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, first asylum countries that host the majority of Syria’s 4.8 million refugees.
One in four refugees worldwide today is Syrian. Their lives have been upended by one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the Second World War; more than 11 million people have been displaced from their homes and at least half a million have been killed. All of this occurred during Obama’s presidency, and rather than work toward a solution to the conflict, the Obama administration and its allies worked to compartmentalize the refugee crisis instead. The Obama administration adeptly controlled the narrative on Syria for five years, as the American people were told there were no good options in Syria. If President Trump is now closing America’s doors, President Obama already closed the curtains. The Islamic State and the global refugee crisis were a direct result of the Obama administration’s aversion to intervening against the Syrian government’s onslaught. And if President Trump is lowering the cap for all refugees in FY 2017 to 50,000 from the 110,000 quota of 2016 is outrageous, remember that in 2014 and 2015, President Obama’s cap was only 70,000, and it was only after immense pressure by humanitarian advocates and Congress that this cap was raised. All of this is lost in the furor over President Trump’s giving way to America’s worst instincts.
The order, which suspends and adds layers of screening for the Visa Interview Waiver Program and the issuance of visas to the U.S. in general, also targets immigrants, tourists, business people, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, non-American dual-nationals as well. Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the other nationalities listed as countries of concern were also, ironically, holdovers from legislation pushed by President Obama. When Congress attempted to pass the America SAFE Act in response to the Paris attacks of November 2015, which would have banned the entry of Syrian refugees, President Obama and bipartisan supporters in Congress countered with measures that targeted the Visa Interview Waiver Program. The result was the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act, which was passed and then signed by President Obama. Under the law, dual nationals of a restricted and non-restricted country, along with Europeans and citizens of other countries participating in the U.S. visa waiver program that have traveled to any of the countries of concern in the past five years, have had their entry to the United States restricted. Though many would agree that the visa waiver program is where the most security gaps exist, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act in 2015 as a “blanket discrimination based on nationality without rational basis.”
President Trump’s executive order now goes much further. It places entire communities at risk of being criminalized. Syrians have been immigrating to the United States since the 1800s, and with higher than average educational and economic attainment in comparison to other immigrant communities, the Syrian American community is a model of integration. Syrian refugee resettlement since 2011 has also been a success, and there are plenty of examples worldwide of Syrians giving back to their new neighbors.
The Islamophobic overtones of the current order cannot be ignored either, as the countries singled out in the order are all Muslim-majority countries, the majority of Syrian refugees are Muslims, and the order makes exceptions for refugees who are religious minorities, which for Muslim-majority countries means refugees who are not Muslims. Religious freedom and religious non-discrimination, core American values, are thus put at risk under the order.
The order will affect not only those seeking safety, but also those trying to provide aid. The new ordinances could place undue constraints on Syrian and Syrian American NGOs—including those vetted by the United States and that are recipients of USAID grants. These organizations provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and Syrians still in the country suffering the hardships of war. Their employees travel between the United States, countries bordering Syria, and in rare instances into Syria for medical missions. Their relationship with the United States and their ability to continue their live-saving work could be affected by the order.
President Trump is on the path to do much more damage to U.S. credibility abroad and to the idea that America welcomes refugees than his predecessors. His actions do not make us safer and they play into the “clash of civilizations” narrative of extremists. Doing all this by executive order, and with a permissive Republican House and Senate in his pocket, he will single-handedly make life significantly more difficult for tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees, as well as for our allies shouldering the responsibility for resettlement. And with President Trump’s reactionary unpredictability as the only consistent trait of his administration, I worry what other American traditions we will buck next in the name of “America First.”