U.S. President Obama greets President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington.
(photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
On January 27 US President Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order banning citizens from six countries from coming to the US for 90 days and preventing people from Syria from coming to the US indefinitely.
Titled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States,” the order was initially accused of being a “Muslim ban.” It caused chaos at airports as protesters converged and lawyers scrambled to aid people caught up in a new policy that the US Customs and Border Protection agency and airlines were briefed on at only the last moment.
Many people were affected, including Green Card holders and those with visas. A Kurdish family on the way to the US was stopped in Cairo and sent back to Erbil.
By Tuesday things had settled down a bit. A judge allowed those who had just arrived as the order was being implemented to stay.
Acting US attorney-general Sally Yates, who refused to defend the order, was fired.
Questions arose as to how the administration chose the particular seven countries in the order.
Bloomberg claimed that Trump’s “immigration ban excluded countries with business ties” and Forbes sought to highlight the same phenomenon. However, a closer inspection of the text of the executive order reveals that Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia – six of the seven countries that came under the ban – were not specifically mentioned in the order.
These countries were already included in previous Department of Homeland Security guidance regarding the US Visa Waiver Program and the Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. Under Barack Obama, the US had labeled the same seven countries as “countries of concern,” recognizing that anyone who had been to those countries recently, or lived in them, could be a security risk.
The Trump team’s desire to keep the momentum from the inauguration moving by signing executive orders during his first hundred days in office led them to reach for a handy list of seven countries already designated as problematic.
Syria was on this list because of its six-year brutal civil war and the presence of al-Qaida and Islamic State.
Iraq similarly was included because of these two groups and other jihadists.
Somalia, Yemen and Libya are all either failed states or wracked by civil war.
Iran and Sudan’s inclusion were less clear. There’s little evidence that any of these countries are more likely to produce terrorists than other countries, such as Pakistan.
However, the former administration was concerned about people who had traveled to these countries and didn’t want to add extra burdens on US allies such as Pakistan. Similarly, although 5,000 ISIS volunteers came from Europe, the US did not subject EU citizens to extra screening.
According to Reuters and other reports, the new US administration scrambled to write the text of its executive order as quickly as possible. They didn’t consult with all of the branches of government affected, and when the Department of Homeland Security made inquiries last week “almost immediately [they were] overruled by the White House, which means [senior adviser Stephen] Bannon and [senior policy adviser] Stephen Miller.”
The chaos that was unleashed by the ban led many to challenge the White House on why it hadn’t considered that Green Card holders and people with lawful visas would suffer under the stringent rules. On January 30 Trump tweeted: “If the ban were announced with a one-week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush into our country that week.”
The picture that is painted is not of a Trump administration out to purposely exclude countries he has business interests in, such as Turkey, or a capricious over-arching “Muslim ban,” but rather a White House team close to the president urging him to act quickly and writing up the ban by hastily grabbing at an existing list of countries the US was concerned about.
Instead of restraining Trump’s assessment that Syria and other countries pose a threat, they enabled and encouraged a harsh policy that tripped up many visa holders who had already been vetted, and poured cold water on the plans of other refugees and travelers.
Trump was building a huge edifice atop of a small foundation laid by the previous administration and a Republican-controlled Congress in 2015 and 2016. This has resulted in blowback in Iran and Iraq, where politicians are seeking reciprocity against the US. In Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia there is little the countries can do, since few Americans travel to them and their internal problems are far greater than this ban.
In terms of preventing refugees, the ban harms tens of thousands of refugees seeking asylum from the seven countries, primarily Iraq, Syria and Somalia. It also harms key US allies such as the Kurds, who have been fighting ISIS for two and a half years alongside the US.