So what exactly is going on in Trump’s ‘Extreme Vetting’ measures?
First, the sad ironies. The executive order, entitled “Protecting the Nation From Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals,” directs federal agencies to block the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for refugees from all countries for 120 days. The total number of refugees admitted in 2017 will be lowered from 110,000 to 50,000. The order also temporarily bans citizens of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia from entering the United States until a review of the visa and refugee vetting process occurs and a more stringent alternative is implemented.
After the order was signed, students, visitors and green-card-holding legal permanent United States residents from the seven countries — and refugees from around the world — were stopped at airports in the United States and abroad, including Cairo, Dubai and Istanbul. Some were blocked from entering the United States and were sent back overseas. The order prevented people who’d been living in the US for years from returning home; it cruelly prevented people who’d fled from war and persecution from crossing into sanctuary despite months or years of rigorous vetting. There was even confusion about whether dual nationals would also be affected – and it appears that some in that situation were detained.
This executive order was issued on Friday afternoon, 27 January. That date just happens to be the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance. (The Whitehouse released a notice about the day that managed to omit any mention of Jews – the primary victims of the Holocaust – and when challenged by the press on this, Trump doubled-down with a vague statement about he’s “the most inclusive President.”) A poignant commemoration of the day was the St. Louis Manifest Project, wherein the names and fates of all those Jewish refugees on board the ship the St. Louis turned away from the USA in 1939 were tweeted out one by one. You can see this moving project here. The poignancy of this project was made all the more stark by the actions of the Trump Whitehouse that afternoon.
Second, here is the stated purpose of the executive order that Trump claims required the US to introduce travel restrictions and ‘extreme vetting’ of citizens from 7 predominantly Muslim states:
Section 1. Purpose. The visa-issuance process plays a crucial role in detecting individuals with terrorist ties and stopping them from entering the United States. Perhaps in no instance was that more apparent than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 Americans. And while the visa-issuance process was reviewed and amended after the September 11 attacks to better detect would-be terrorists from receiving visas, these measures did not stop attacks by foreign nationals who were admitted to the United States.
Numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas, or who entered through the United States refugee resettlement program. Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States. The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.
In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including "honor" killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.
This justification might seem a bit baffling if you remember that the four states from which all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists were nationals (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Pakistan) are not on the list of countries on which travel restrictions apply. Nor is there any actual evidence of ‘numerous foreign nationals’ committing terrorism-related crimes within the US after 9/11. This has been confirmed by number of independent studies (such as by the New America Foundation and including in a comprehensive report by the libertarian Cato Institute (which you can read here) which demonstrated there's only a one in a 3.64 billion chance of being killed in an act of terrorism committed by a refugee of any nationality; that’s a 0.00000003 percent chance of being murdered by a refugee. And the San Bernardino attackers (both of Pakistani origin, one a U.S. citizen and the other a lawful permanent resident), the Orlando shooter (a U.S. citizen whose parents were born in Afghanistan), and the Boston marathon bombers (one a naturalized U.S. citizen, the other a green card holder from Kyrgyzstan), came from none of the countries listed in the order.
The other justification about bigotry, hatred and sexual violence of foreign cultures (for Canadians this has shades of Kellie Leitch’s ‘barbaric practices’ tip line proposal during the last election) also seems completely at odds with other actions that Trump has promised, such as promising to cut funding to the Office on Violence Against Women and defunding Planned Parenthood. And this despite the fact that in the US, nearly 20 people every minute, the majority of them women, are victims of intimate partner abuse. But Trump is not suggesting increasing protections for violence against women at home.
Moreover, for such an important document with such far-reaching implications, the haste and indeed incompetence with which it was pushed out is also stunning. NBC reported that the document was not reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the State Department, or the Department of Defense prior to its signing. National Security Council lawyers were even prevented from evaluating it. Further, the New York Times reported that Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the agencies tasked with carrying out the policy, were only given a briefing call while Trump was actually signing the order itself. To put this all in context, the Obama administration typically spent three or more weeks vetting his proposed executive orders to make sure they complied with all relevant laws and legislation.
As Benjamin Wittes, a very conservative legal analyst noted in their own evaluation which is well worth reading in full, noted: “in the short term, the incompetence is actually good news for people who believe in visa and refugee policies based on criteria other than—let’s not be coy about this—bigotry and religious discrimination.” And clearly the courts have so far agreed: the ACLU was able to successfully petition a federal court for a national stay of deportations due to the executive order. As Wittes also stated:
In some ways, the most stunning incompetence in the document appears in one of the least discussed sections: The section at the end that mandates reporting on the nefarious terrorist activities of foreigners in the United States. This section requires regular reports from DHS on terrorism-related offenses by foreign nationals, and gender-based violence and honor killings by foreign nationals (because remember, Mexico sends us their rapists and Muslims all kill their daughters when they date Americans). The White House appears to have included this section because the Trumpists think it will show that large numbers of foreigners are coming to the United States and committing acts of terrorism here.
But given the statistics showing the absence of such terrorism by refugees noted above, this reporting measure seems doomed to demonstrate the false premises of the entire executive order.
There will also be diplomatic fallout. In addition to the catastrophic turn in the relations with Mexico, Trump’s new order will certainly raise tensions with countries whose nationals it targets (and Iran today restricted travel by U.S. nationals in retaliation, indefinitely separating a great many U.S. citizens from their family in Iran). And what a gift to ISIS….I bet they are making their recruitment videos using this already.
So, what should we make of all this? Was this just incompetent gesturing to a campaign promise by Trump?
Partly, I would suggest it was. Throw the core supporters some red-meat: we will build the wall, we will stop terrorists coming here by banning people from the places that have terrorists. Certain allied Muslim countries were left out because the diplomatic repercussions of including them would be too detrimental, or possibly because of Trump’s own business connections. I don’t think it coincidental that most of the seven targeted countries are desperately poor – unlike those exempted. Despite all the protests at the airports and the successful court challenges – in fact probably because of them – there is little to suggest that those core supporters will have changed their minds.
But this tactic is not just a distraction or hamfisted effort to play to the base.
Witte again provides a key insight, I think:
in the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don’t marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process. You don’t target the wrong people in nutty ways when you’re rationally pursuing real security objectives.
When do you do these things? You do these things when you’re elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. You do them when you’ve made a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point. In other words, this is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.
This vindictiveness will play well to Trump’s core support. It will soothe their sense of grievance. They will feel listened to, because the ‘othered’ are suffering, not them. Trump is basically telling his supporters "I told you I'd do something about this bogeyman and look, I am." And this something is doubly significant for people who believe we need to "make America great again", because it is not only standing against the evils of "Islamic extremism", but it is allegedly standing up for democracy and freedom and decency (as ‘they’ have been tarnished with barbaric honor killings…). It also reaffirms that Trump et al are deliberately demonizing groups as incompatible with “America First”: a worldview where Mexicans are not welcome, and Muslims are not, and never can be, citizens of the west.
[If you are and American citizen and want to do something concrete, please check out this listing of US Senators and their stance on the issue so far. If they have not come out in opposition to the ban you can contact them to protest. Thanks to Jason Kelly for this link.]