On January 27th, Trump signed an executive order (“PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES”), which bans the arrival of any people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia for the next 90 days. This includes Green Card holders who exit the US and excludes people with diplomatic visas. In addition, the order calls for a report that would identify which countries need to gather more information from visa applicants and what additional information should be collected. The report will be submitted within 30 days of the order. Those countries named in the report will be required to amend their visa processes starting within 60 days of the report. If the countries in the report don’t comply, the entry of their citizens into the US will be banned starting at the end of the 90 day period.
In addition, refugee entry is banned for 120 days, and the entry of Syrian refugees is banned indefinitely. The former, general refugee ban is accompanied by a revision of refugee screening procedures. Even after general refugee entry is re-initiated after 120 days, the order sets a limit of 50,000 refugee entries in 2017. After general refugee entry is re-initiated the order calls for the prioritization of refugees claiming religious persecution, as long as they are the minority religion in their country.
In addition, the completion of the “biometric entry-exit tracking system” will be expedited. The order also rescinds the policy of granting visa interview waivers; all non-immigrant visa applicants must now go through an interview stage.The order will also review visa reciprocity, and adjust visa fees and periods so they match the visa treatment received by US nationals by other countries.
The Main Effect
The effect of the order is basically to restrict travel to the US of people not only from the aforementioned seven countries, but also from various other countries. The former is plain in the text: travel from those seven countries will be non-existent for the next three months, and those countries who do not comply with new visa information requirements will be banned indefinitely. The list of countries named in the report may be longer or shorter than the list of seven included in the ban; the possible number is not yet clear. If any of those countries do not comply and are banned, it is likely they will also reciprocate and ban American citizens. This would have a particularly significant effect on relations with Iraq (a partner in the fight with ISIS), Iran (whose economy is opening up due to the nuclear agreement) and the Syrian aid effort.
However, there are also items in the order that would have an effect on travel from various other developing countries, where visas are required to enter the US. The rescinding of the interview waiver will increase the burden of reviewing visa applications, and place a de facto limit on the number of applicants that can be approved annually by an embassy. The review of visa reciprocity, would most likely result in the tightening of visa requirements not their loosening, thereby reducing the demand for and supply of visas for nationals of countries with strict entry requirements/fees of their own (e.g. China). While it is not said directly in the order that these items would reduce travel to the US in general, in effect that will be the outcome to a certain degree.
One of the most controversial parts of the order is under its section on refugee policy, namely its prioritization of religious minorities claiming religious persecution. Seeing as the main source of refugees is currently the Middle East, this is equal to saying that Christians and Jews will be prioritized over Muslims. Add that to the cap on the US’s maximum refugee acceptance in 2017 being reduced to 50,000 and it is possible that quite a low number of the accepted refugees from the Middle East will be Muslim. This is of course despite the fact that the vast majority of refugees there are Muslim.
In regards to the limit reduction itself, as you can see from the graph below (Middle East = “Near East”), it is not a significant change from recent years.
Total Number of Refugees accepted by the US, 1975-2017
Now that we’ve gone over the main outcome of the order, let’s look at what the pros and the cons of this policy are, and whether it will be effective at preventing terrorists entering the US.
- Reduced entry of people with terrorist/criminal backgrounds from the said countries. The review of visa screening requirements, will place more barriers in the way of people with criminal backgrounds who want to enter the US. Terrorists will be less likely to enter from the countries with stricter requirements and they will be deterred from trying. A quid pro quo is that, depending on what the new requirements are, innocent people may also be unable to provide the adequate information. Once again this would have the effect of placing a de facto limit on the number/type (e.g. only higher income individuals with the resources to prove themselves) of travelers approved from these countries. In the absence of alternative methods of entering the US (by raft, using faked passports, etc.), we can assume that higher visa barriers will successfully reduce both the total number of travelers and the number of travelers with criminal backgrounds from those countries. Assuming that accepting Syrian refugees is a risky practice, the order will eliminates that threat. In regards to the seven countries, the premise of the travel ban is again based on the assumption that those countries pose a terrorist threat, but this premise is applied inconsistently, as the below table shows. Some countries should arguably be added to the list (Afghanistan, Pakistan) and some taken off (Iran, which had no attacks). There is also no public data providing evidence that immigrants/refugees from those countries have caused incidents in the US in the past.
Total number of suicide terrorist attacks by country, 2014-2016
- It’s bad for the US image. The order is widely viewed as a partial fulfillment of Trump’s campaign promise to enact a “Muslim ban.” In actual fact, the order is probably not unconnected that promise. It probably wouldn’t be inaccurate to view it is a more articulated version of the promise — the promise expressed in a more legitimate way. Does the order really discriminate against Muslims? All the seven countries are Muslim majority, but they are also conflict countries or supposed “sponsors of terrorism,” which lends some rationality to the order. However, its inclusion of Green Card holders (which includes former refugees who have stayed in the US for more than one year) and its seeming prioritization of Christian refugees is difficult to justify logically. As the vast majority of people do not have the time to consider the order’s ramifications in-depth, a simplistic understanding can be expected along the lines of the reaction to Trump’s campaign promise. The order will have the effect of alienating the countries on the list. Muslims around the world will feel alienated, as they will see this as an extension of Trump’s campaign promise. Islamic terrorism organizations will capitalize on these feelings with a renewed propaganda push that will likely succeed in attracting a certain number of additional supporters. Generally, the image of the US as a liberal benefactor will be damaged.
- Diplomatic retaliation. With the main principle of diplomacy being reciprocity, there is no doubt that the order will be met with reciprocal restrictions on US travelers. Countries that are banned indefinitely, will ban the US indefinitely. Countries forced to apply stricter visa screening will make it harder for US citizens to enter their countries as well. Countries subject to the order’s “review of reciprocity” (and the higher visa barriers that will result) will do the same to the US with their own national bias. The total effect will depend on what countries are subject to what restrictions, but the result will be some degree of higher cost for American travelers to the developing world. This will likely have an economic cost as well.
- It encourages terrorists of other nationalities. With the intensification of anti-US propaganda from terrorist organizations, it’s conceivable that they would call on their followers in other countries to go to the US. Islamic extremism is not limited to the conflict countries named in the order. Thousands of nationals from Europe and Asia have fought for ISIS. The Boston bomber was Russian. The Florida shooter was a second generation Afghan American citizen. The San Bernardino shooters were Pakistani (one an American citizen, one a legal permanent resident). All 19 9/11 hijackers were from countries (15 from Saudi Arabia, 2 from UAE, 1 from Lebanon, and 1 from Egypt) not on the order’s list. Furthermore, the order does nothing to prevent the entry of terrorists from countries that don’t require visas for entry to the US, namely the UK and the EU.
- 2016 Syrian refugees? Another inconsistency in the order is the exemption of the Syrian refugees accepted in 2016. If accepting Syrian refugees in 2017 is so risky that the US must stop accepting them altogether, what about the ones who entered in 2016? If they posed such a threat, then shouldn’t they be expelled from the US? The same can be said for Syrian Green Card holders (which includes past Syrian Refugees who entered before 2016). Currently Green Card holders are only barred from entering once they have exited (hence the number of people stranded overseas now). But if Syrians are such a threat now, surely they were also a threat in 2014/2015. If that’s true, then the logical conclusion is that former Syrian refugees from all recent years should be expelled from the country. If the policy is to be consistent, then surely some measure like this should be added. The lack of such a measure communicates that the threat posed by Syrian refugees is actually not so grave, and is likely being exaggerated by the order. Coincidentally, the order protects the US from “dangerous” refugees who are a world away in the Middle East, but not from those who may have already entered the country. Homeland Security’s immigration enforcement statistics do mention any past incident, or present/future threat of terrorists entering the country as refugees.
Based on what we know about terrorism, it is questionable whether this policy will be effective in preventing it. While its effectiveness is questionable, the damage it will do the US image and US international relations is clear. There is even a possibility that the policy could mobilize extremists in the US and the wider Western world, leading to a greater terrorist threat. If diplomatic relations with Iran and Iraq are damaged it could also lead to greater support for terrorists among their citizens, and a botching of the war on ISIS. Not to mention that the US would be excluded from their opening economies.
White House official website, Presidential Actions, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states
Refugee Processing Center official website, Admissions and Arrivals, available at http://www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals/
University of Chicago, Suicide Attack Database, available at http://cpostdata.uchicago.edu/search_new.php?clear=1
Homeland Security official website, Immigration Data and Statistics, available at https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics