One of the few foreign politicians to publicly support Donald Trump during the 2016 election was Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. So, one and a half years into the Trump presidency, things must be great between Trump and his fellow populist provocateur, right? In fact, things may be tenser now than ever.
This story starts in 2011, when Orban introduced new laws allowing ethnic Hungarians living outside the country to gain citizenship and, thereby, votes in Hungarian elections and Hungarian passports. Orban, the Washington Post reports, touted the program as a way to bring together the Hungarian diaspora, which was splintered across Eastern Europe after the two world wars. But it also won him a new and loyal constituency of voters; nearly a million people took him up on the offer.
Unfortunately, about 700 of the new passports issued through Orban’s program ended up in the hands of frauds. And 85 people entered the United States on those passports, which was relatively easy to do since Hungary is part of the Visa Waiver Program. These illegal entries are worrying. According to a DHS official who spoke to the Washington Post, “common reasons for doing this are drug smuggling, organized crime or illegal immigration.” But “the most troubling reasons would be a well-organized terrorist organization like ISIS or al-Qaeda might purchase these documents… or the Russian spies we kicked out might fly to Ukraine, buy a Hungarian passport and fly back to the U.S.” In short order, the Trump administration downgraded Hungary’s visa-free status to “provisional” and demanded further action, although satisfactory fixes have yet to come.
First, DHS investigators deserve a great deal of credit for identifying these irregularities, and one hopes they are scrutinizing vulnerabilities in other passport systems as well, our own very much included. If Hungary’s passport system is so vulnerable, how vulnerable are passport systems elsewhere in the world? Consider that Hungary is a member of the European Union, with a relatively sophisticated and well-funded bureaucracy. Surely other much poorer countries with weaker administrative capacity are equally vulnerable to fraud, if not more so.
Trump sparked enormous controversy by issuing an executive order that would temporarily ban visitors and potential migrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries, with the expressed goal of establishing more stringent and reliable vetting procedures. Since then, the scope of the order has expanded to include non-Muslim-majority countries, but that has not changed the perception that it is manifestation of anti-Muslim animus, for the obvious reason that the president and his allies have at various points expressed anti-Muslim sentiments. One has to wonder, though, if we need a more ambitious overhaul of our approach to visa issuance that would go well beyond the travel ban countries.
The Trump administration has already imposed tighter visa rules, to the consternation of the tourism and higher education sectors. Colleges and universities have been particularly vocal in objecting to the slowdown in the issuance of student visas, for the usual ideological reasons but also, and more importantly, I suspect, because lax admissions policies have proven to be a lucrative revenue source. Tighter visa rules are, to my mind, a good thing. But they should be accompanied by a smarter, more efficient effort to locate and remove overstay violators. Indeed, as David Martin, who served in DHS during the Obama years, has argued, a highly visible enforcement effort focused on overstayers would do a lot more to improve border control than a focus on long-resident unauthorized migrants. But that is a subject for another time.
Editor’s Note: This post has been amended since publication.