Politics & Policy

Trump’s Order on Refugees: Mostly Right on Substance, Wrong on Rollout

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)

On Friday, Donald Trump signed an executive order halting admission of refugees for 120 days and halting travel from seven majority-Muslim countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia — for 90 days while the federal government undertakes a review of admission procedures. He has also imposed an annual cap of 50,000 refugees. The instant backlash, which has culminated in thousands of protesters creating chaos at the nation’s airports, is the result more of knee-jerk emotion than a sober assessment of Trump’s policy.




It’s a well-documented fact that would-be terrorists are posing as refugees to obtain admission into Europe, and visa screenings have routinely failed to identify foreign nationals who later committed terrorist attacks in the United States. As the Islamic State continues its reign of terror across a large swath of the Middle East, it should be a matter of common sense that the U.S. needs to evaluate and strengthen its vetting.

Trump’s executive order is an attempt — albeit, an ill-conceived attempt in several ways, about which more momentarily — to address this problem. Rhetoric about “open arms” aside, the United States. has been modest in its approach to refugees for the past two decades. During the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. regularly admitted fewer than 50,000 refugees. Barack Obama’s tenure was little different. He normally admitted numbers on par with Bush’s, despite operating under a slightly higher cap (around 80,000, a holdover from the end of the Bush years). It was only at the end of his second term, when he dramatically expanded the cap to 110,000, that Obama pursued refugee admissions aggressively. Trump’s order is, to this extent, a return to recent norms.

Similar myths have dominated the public understanding of the Syrian-refugee program. Until ratcheting up the program in 2016, the Obama administration admitted fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees between 2011 and 2015 — this at the time that the former president was dithering over his “red line.” The 13,000 Syrian refugees admitted during 2016, pursuant to President Obama’s expansion, still constitute an infinitesimal fraction of the refugee population, which is in the several millions, of that war-torn country. Trump has suspended that program temporarily, pending review.

When that program comes back on-line, it will include a directive to prioritize Christians, Yazidis, and other persecuted religious minorities — against which the Obama administration effectively discriminated at the same time that it was declaring Christians to be victims of “genocide” at the hands of ISIS. Given the unique threats these groups face, moving them to the front of the line should be an obvious measure, and contrary to outraged claims otherwise, prioritizing religious minorities is in accordance with law; religion is already used as a criterion for evaluating refugee-status claims.

Finally, there is recent precedent for Trump’s order. In 2011, the Obama administration halted refugee-processing from Iraq for six months in order to do exactly what the Trump administration is doing now: ensure that terrorists were not exploiting the program to enter the country. No one rushed to JFK International to protest. Also, the seven countries to which the order applies are taken from Obama-era precedents.

All of this said, Trump’s order displays much of the amateurism that dominated his campaign. There seems to have been no guidance provided by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to the officials nationwide who would be responsible for executing the order; and on Saturday, as refugees were being detained at airports across the country, it was reported that local officials were struggling to contact Customs and DHS higher-ups.

In 2011, the Obama administration halted refugee-processing from Iraq for six months in order to do exactly what the Trump administration is doing now.

The confusion extended to the question of whether the executive order applied to green-card holders. It took DHS secretary John Kelly more than 24 hours to clarify that this is not the case.

Similarly, the White House should stipulate that this policy does not apply to the many Iraqi refugees who have acted as aides and translators to Allied forces in the region. The order allows the relevant officials to intervene on a case-by-case basis to “issue visas or other immigration benefits to nationals of countries for which visas and benefits are otherwise blocked,” but this permission seems to have gone initially unnoticed. Kelly, who served in Iraq, should make sure that this power is used liberally.

Most of this confusion could have been avoided if the White House had slowed down, taken time to brief the officials responsible for carrying out the order, and ensured that the legal details were airtight. Instead, it seems that White House political advisers overrode cautions from DHS lawyers and pushed the order forward, to their own detriment. The country is now embroiled, once again, in spectacular protests, and reasonable policy has been drowned in outrage. The White House’s approach here has probably damaged future efforts in this area.

The United States needs to bolster its immigration policies across the board, and assessing whether our refugee-admitting procedures are adequately protecting American citizens is entirely reasonable. But President Trump has failed abjectly in the prudential considerations without which even good policy is often doomed. Refugees are not the only thing in need of more vetting.

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly stated that President Barack Obama increased the refugee ceiling at the beginning of his second term. In fact, he lowered it slightly (from 80,000 to 70,000), before expanding it in FY 2016.]


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