The refugee crisis and its consequences represent a string of failures on the part of multiple actors. There is the failure of European political leaders to think through the consequences of the importation of millions of people, particularly those hampered by language barriers and largely dependent on social services. There is the failure of global leaders in multiple nations to live up to promises made in the region and to be a force for stability, not unrest. There is the failure of America’s systems of government, both when it came to the red line and the authorization of military force and when it came to processing refugees. And there is the failure of the media when it came to presenting the policy choices and their pros and cons fairly and honestly without turning to race-baiting and suggestions of bigotry as the only motivation for wanting security.
During the 2016 campaign, there were few topics that sparked more fury than the issue of a proposed halt to letting refugees into the country from potential terrorist hotbeds overseas. In December of 2015, I debated Michelle Goldberg on the topic on MSNBC, and pointed out that what Americans who demanded such a ban were really saying was not inherently racist or even unreasonable.
From the transcript:
I think you can have an American citizen who`s not Islamophobic. You can have a significant degree of distrust for the government to be able to tell good Muslims from bad. We saw in 2011 with the Iraqi refugee program, you know, they had a dozen people who came through who ended up planning IEDs… If you have that view, you don`t trust the government. I don`t trust the government to protect us. I don’t trust them to tell the good refugees from the bad refugees. I don’t trust them on this count.
At the time, Goldberg’s response was that: “I suppose that you could make an argument that somebody could want to shut America’s borders to Muslims for reasons beyond Islamophobia. But the idea that – this policy is the essence of Islamophobia.”
Except it isn’t. A definition of Islamophobic policy would be a ban on all Muslims entering the country, or a ban on all refugees entering the country, or a ban on all entries from majority Muslim nations. That is not what the Trump administration did here, nor is it what he promised on the trail. It is, however, how the media is largely treating this – by describing it as an outright Muslim ban, a mischaracterization that feeds the idea this is purely motivated by dumb Islamophobia and ignores the fact that yes, there have been quite a few attempted terrorist attacks from foreign-born figures since 2001.
In 2011, the Obama administration quietly paused processing of refugees from Iraq. It wasn’t out of a sense of Islamophobia – it was because they discovered that in 2009, they had let in potentially dozens of dangerous terrorists who had previously constructed IEDs targeting American troops. Here’s the ABC report, which you may notice doesn’t come until another two years later. They found the fingerprints of one refugee on a phone wired to unexploded IEDs meant to kill. The processing delay cut the number of Iraqis accepted into the United States in half, and in that six months, “One Iraqi who had aided American troops was assassinated before his refugee application could be processed, because of the immigration delays, two U.S. officials said.”
Trump’s executive order calls for a 120 day pause in the admission of refugees, then caps the number of refugee admissions at 50,000 – a total that is right in line with the average of the Bush and Obama administrations, with Obama’s 2016 expansion being the one exception. It also calls for a 90 day pause from 7 countries defined as countries of concern by the Obama administration, countries that – with the exception of Iran – have governments that barely function. The point is to deliver on the promise he made during the campaign: to pump the brakes until the administration is confident it has fixed the problems that let potentially dangerous individuals through.
Yet that’s not going to be the reaction when the CNN headline blares: “Trump bans 134,000,000 from the U.S.” Democrats are protesting this approach as fundamentally un-American. “This executive order was mean-spirited and un-American,” [Chuck Schumer] said, flanked by refugees at a news conference in New York. “Look at these faces! Are they any kind of threat to America? No, they’re the promise of America.” And they are not alone – Republicans too are chastising Trump over this. The Koch network condemned the order. Rep. Justin Amash said it was “Not lawful to ban immigrants on basis of nationality”, which is just inconsistent entirely with the legal history on this question. Tim Kaine said it was ‘not a coincidence’ that the Trump travel ban and a Holocaust statement omitting Jews came on the same day. Not to be outdone, Andrew Cuomo announced that he is Muslim, Jewish, gay, and a woman asserting control over her own body.
For his part, Trump gives no sign of backing down. “To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” Trump said in the statement. “This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe. There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order.” The president reiterated that the country would resume issuing visas to all countries “once we are sure we have reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days.”
The real problem for Trump is not in his policy – which whenever he had engaged in it would prompt this type of fierce response – but its implementation. This was obvious in the inconsistency with which the order was applied to green card holders. While my own non-lawyer reading is that the order seems clear on this point, lower level officials clearly thought otherwise. On the one hand, the White House was claiming they won’t be barred. And DHS secretary John Kelly says it’s “in the national interest” to let lawful permanent residents (such as green card holders) into the US. But to the degree that was inconsistent with the implementation of the policy, travelers who were law-abiding and not subject to the order suffered. That should never have happened.
Here is the interpretation of David French, attorney and no Trump fan.
The plain language of the order doesn’t apply to legal permanent residents of the U.S., and green-card holders have been through round after round of vetting and security checks. The administration should intervene, immediately, to stop misapplication. If, however, the Trump administration continues to apply the order to legal permanent residents, it should indeed be condemned.
This is an example of why executive orders are themselves, while perhaps satisfying to Trump – go to a place, sign the paper, smile for the cameras – are not a good way to make policy. Clarity becomes all the more important when a president does something unilaterally, and the lack of a definitive explanation here likely resulted in the detention of people who did not need to be detained. What’s more, the rush to get a federal stay of the order by its opponents created even more confusion as to which portions of the stay applied to which people. This lack of clarity is itself a failure, of a type that we are likely to see repeated by an administration led by a man who seems to love exploiting chaos.
So where do things stand? Democrats in the Senate in particular may try to gin up legislation to roll back this order, but that will require allies. For Trump’s part, expect him to publicly at least take the attitude that he is doubling down on security, even as behind the scenes, General Kelly and others work to more clearly define this new policy. And for the part of the media, expect a vast over-interpretation of this event as changing the way Americans perceive issues of security and the refugee issue.
There are some Americans inspired when they see sights like a “No Borders” sign waved in protest. There are others who voted for Trump precisely because they believe it’s not anti-Mexican or anti-Islamic to want a border in the first place. “Louise Ingram, a 69-year-old retiree from Troy, Alabama, said she forgave the new administration a few ‘glitches,’ such as widespread confusion over treatment of green card holders, as it moved to protect U.S. citizens from attacks. ‘I’m not opposed to immigrants,’ she said. ‘I just want to make sure they are safe to come in.'” And she is not wrong to want that.