President Trump has ordered a temporary, 120-day halt to admitting refugees from seven countries, all of them war-torn states with majority-Muslim populations: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia. He has further indicated that, once additional screening provisions are put in place, he wants further refugee admissions from those countries to give priority to Christian refugees over Muslim refugees. Trump’s order is, in characteristic Trump fashion, both ham-handed and underinclusive, and particularly unfair to allies who risked life and limb to help the American war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is also not the dangerous and radical departure from U.S. policy that his liberal critics make it out to be. His policy may be terrible public relations for the United States, but it is fairly narrow and well within the recent tradition of immigration actions taken by the Obama administration.
First, let’s put in context what Trump is actually doing. The executive order, on its face, does not discriminate between Muslim and Christian (or Jewish) immigrants, and it is far from being a complete ban on Muslim immigrants or even Muslim refugees. Trump’s own stated reason for giving preference to Christian refugees is also worth quoting:
Trump was asked whether he would prioritize persecuted Christians in the Middle East for admission as refugees, and he replied, “Yes.”
“They’ve been horribly treated,” he said. “Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian it was almost impossible. And the reason that was so unfair — everybody was persecuted, in all fairness — but they were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair.
“So we are going to help them.”
Trump isn’t making this up; Obama-administration policy effectively discriminated against persecuted religious-minority Christians from Syria (even while explicitly admitting that ISIS was pursuing a policy of genocide against Syrian Christians), and the response from most of Trump’s liberal critics has been silence:
The United States has accepted 10,801 Syrian refugees, of whom 56 are Christian. Not 56 percent; 56 total, out of 10,801. That is to say, one-half of 1 percent.
The BBC says that 10 percent of all Syrians are Christian, which would mean 2.2 million Christians. . . . Experts say [one] reason for the lack of Christians in the makeup of the refugees is the makeup of the camps. Christians in the main United Nations refugee camp in Jordan are subject to persecution, they say, and so flee the camps, meaning they are not included in the refugees referred to the U.S. by the U.N.
“The Christians don’t reside in those camps because it is too dangerous,” [Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom] said. “They are preyed upon by other residents from the Sunni community, and there is infiltration by ISIS and criminal gangs.”
“They are raped, abducted into slavery and they are abducted for ransom. It is extremely dangerous; there is not a single Christian in the Jordanian camps for Syrian refugees,” Shea said.
On the whole, 2016 was the first time in a decade when the United States let in more Muslim than Christian refugees, 38,901 overall, 75 percent of them from Syria, Somalia, and Iraq, all countries on Trump’s list — and all countries in which the United States has been actively engaged in drone strikes or ground combat over the past year. Obama had been planning to dramatically expand that number, to 110,000, in 2017 — only after he was safely out of office.
This brings us to a broader point: The United States in general, and the Obama administration in particular, never had an open-borders policy for all refugees from everywhere, so overwrought rhetoric about Trump ripping down Lady Liberty’s promise means comparing him to an ideal state that never existed. In fact, the Obama administration completely stopped processing refugees from Iraq for six months in 2011 over concerns about terrorist infiltration, a step nearly identical to Trump’s current order, but one that was met with silence and indifference by most of Trump’s current critics.
Only two weeks ago, Obama revoked a decades-old “wet foot, dry foot” policy of allowing entry to refugees from Cuba who made it to our shores. His move, intended to signal an easing of tensions with the brutal Communist dictatorship in Havana, has stranded scores of refugees in Mexico and Central America, and Mexico last Friday deported the first 91 of them to Cuba. This, too, has no claim on the conscience of Trump’s liberal critics. After all, Cuban Americans tend to vote Republican.
Even more ridiculous and blinkered is the suggestion that there may be something unconstitutional about refusing entry to refugees or discriminating among them on religious or other bases (a reaction that was shared at first by some Republicans, including Mike Pence, when Trump’s plan was announced in December 2015). There are plenty of moral and political arguments on these points, but foreigners have no right under our Constitution to demand entry to the United States or to challenge any reason we might have to refuse them entry, even blatant religious discrimination. Under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress’s powers in this area are plenary, and the president’s powers are as broad as the Congress chooses to give him. If liberals are baffled as to why even the invocation of the historically problematic “America First” slogan by Trump is popular with almost two-thirds of the American public, they should look no further than people arguing that foreigners should be treated by the law as if they were American citizens with all the rights and protections we give Americans.
Liberals are likewise on both unwise and unpopular ground in sneering at the idea that there might be an increased risk of radical Islamist terrorism resulting from large numbers of Muslims entering the country as refugees or asylees. There have been many such cases in Europe, ranging from terrorists (as in the Brussels attack) posing as refugees to the infiltration of radicals and the radicalization of new entrants. The 9/11 plotters, several of whom overstayed their visas in the U.S. after immigrating from the Middle East to Germany, are part of that picture as well. Here in the U.S., we have had a number of terror attacks carried out by foreign-born Muslims or their children. The Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing were children of asylees; the Times Square bomber was a Pakistani immigrant; the underwear bomber was from Nigeria; the San Bernardino shooter was the son of Pakistani immigrants; the Chattanooga shooter was from Kuwait; the Fort Hood shooter was the son of Palestinian immigrants. All of this takes place against the backdrop of a global movement of radical Islamist terrorism that kills tens of thousands of people a year in terrorist attacks and injures or kidnaps tens of thousands more.
There are plenty of reasons not to indict the entire innocent Muslim population, including those who come as refugees or asylees seeking to escape tyranny and radicalism, for the actions of a comparatively small percentage of radicals. But efforts to salami-slice the problem into something that looks like a minor or improbable outlier, or to compare this to past waves of immigrants, are an insult to the intelligence of the public. The tradeoffs from a more open-borders posture are real, and the reasons for wanting our screening process to be a demanding one are serious.
Like it or not, there’s a war going on out there, and many of its foot soldiers are ideological radicals who wear no uniform and live among the people they end up attacking. If your only response to these issues is to cry “This is just xenophobia and bigotry,” you’re either not actually paying attention to the facts or engaging in the same sort of intellectual beggary that leads liberals to refuse to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. Andrew Cuomo declared this week, “If there is a move to deport immigrants, I say then start with me” — because his grandparents were immigrants. This is unserious and childish: President Obama deported over 2.5 million people in eight years in office, and I didn’t see Governor Cuomo getting on a boat back to Italy.
Conservatives have long recognized these points — which is another way of saying that a blank check for refugee admissions is no more a core principle of the Right than it is of the Left.
A more trenchant critique of Trump’s order is that he’s undercutting his own argument by how narrow the order is. Far from a “Muslim ban,” the order applies to only seven of the world’s 50 majority-Muslim countries. Three of those seven (Iran, Syria, and Sudan) are designated by the State Department as state sponsors of terror, but the history of terrorism by Islamist radicals over the past two decades — even state-sponsored terrorism – is dominated by people who are not from countries engaged in officially recognized state-sponsored terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers were predominantly Saudi, and a significant number of other attacks have been planned or carried out by Egyptians, Pakistanis, and people from the various Gulf states. But a number of these countries have more significant business and political ties to the United States (and in some cases to the Trump Organization as well), so it’s more inconvenient to add them to the list. Simply put, there’s no reason to believe that the countries on the list are more likely to send us terrorists than the countries off the list.
That said, the seven states selected do include most of the influx of refugees and do present particular logistical problems in vetting the backgrounds of refugees. If Trump’s goal is simply to beef up screening after a brief pause, he’s on firmer ground.
The moral and strategic arguments against Trump’s policy are, however, significant. America’s open-hearted willingness to harbor refugees from around the world has always been a source of our strength, and sometimes an effective tool deployed directly against hostile foreign tyrannies. Today, for example, the chief adversary of Venezuela’s oppressive economic policies is a website run by a man who works at a Home Depot in Alabama, having been granted political asylum here in 2005. And the refugee problem is partly one of our own creation. My own preference for Syrian refugees, many of them military-age males whom Assad is trying to get out of his country, has been to arm them, train them, and send them back, after the tradition of the Polish and French in World War II and the Czechs in World War I. But that requires support that neither Trump nor Obama has been inclined to provide, and you can’t seriously ask individual Syrians to fight a suicidal two-front war against ISIS and the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad without outside support. So where else can they go?
Also, some people seeking refugee status or asylum may have stronger claims on our gratitude. Consider some of the first people denied entry under the new policy:
The lawyers said that one of the Iraqis detained at Kennedy Airport, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had worked on behalf of the United States government in Iraq for ten years. The other, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, was coming to the United States to join his wife, who had worked for an American contractor, and young son, the lawyers said.
These specific cases may or may not turn out to be as sympathetic as they appear; these are statements made by lawyers filing a class action, who by their own admission haven’t even spoken to their clients. But in a turn of humorous irony that undercut some of the liberal narrative, it turns out that Darweesh told the press that he likes Trump.
Trump’s moves are not as dramatic a departure from the Obama administration as his critics would have you believe.
Certainly, we should give stronger consideration to refugee or asylum claims from people who are endangered as a result of their cooperation with the U.S. military. But such consideration can still be extended on a case-by-case basis, as the executive order explicitly permits: “Notwithstanding a suspension pursuant to subsection (c) of this section or pursuant to a Presidential proclamation described in subsection (e) of this section, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security may, on a case-by-case basis, and when in the national interest, issue visas or other immigration benefits to nationals of countries for which visas and benefits are otherwise blocked.”
Trump also seems to have triggered some unnecessary chaos at the airports and borders around the globe by signing the order without a lot of adequate advance notice to the public or to the people charged with administering the order. That’s characteristic of his early administration’s public-relations amateur hour, and an unnecessary, unforced error. Then again, the core policy is one he broadcast to great fanfare well over a year ago, so this comes as no great shock.
The American tradition of accepting refugees and asylees from around the world, especially from the clutches of our enemies, is a proud one, and it is a sad thing to see that compromised. And while Middle Eastern Christians should be given greater priority in escaping a region where they are particularly persecuted, the next step in this process should not be one that seeks to permanently enshrine a preference for Christians over Muslims generally. But our tradition has never been an unlimited open-door policy, and President Trump’s latest moves are not nearly such a dramatic departure from the Obama administration as Trump’s liberal critics (or even many of his fans) would have you believe.
— Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York City and an NRO contributing columnist.