With an executive order signed Friday, President Donald Trump delivered on his campaign promise to impose a restrictive U.S. policy toward refugee resettlement and other forms of legal immigration.
By preventing Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. indefinitely, imposing a 120-day suspension on all refugee admissions from anywhere in the world, and temporarily blocking visas from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump took a different approach than his predecessor with a stated aim to keep extremists out of America.
While some security experts welcome the orders as a short-term way to evaluate and improve U.S. vetting procedures, others worry that limiting American assistance to the most vulnerable of immigrants is detrimental to the fight against terrorism.
“It’s a good short-term measure that allows us to take a step back and look more holistically at immigration and refugee policy, but this is by no means a long-term fix and it would undermine our interests and values if this becomes the new norm,” said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in an interview with The Daily Signal.
Throughout his campaign, Trump targeted the U.S. refugee resettlement program, arguing the government’s vetting system needed to be tougher, especially for Syrians fleeing war and attempting to come to the U.S. His executive order calls for “extreme vetting” of refugees.
The U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees in fiscal year 2016, the most since 1999. The total included more than 12,000 Syrians, making them the second-largest origin group.
— Andrew Bowen (@abowen17) January 28, 2017
“We are establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States,” Trump said Friday at the Pentagon during a ceremony for James Mattis, the new defense secretary. “We want to make sure we aren’t admitting to our country the threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those to our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”
Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, countered that the current vetting process for refugees is the most stringent screening for any category of legal immigrant. The process for Syrians has additional layers, and can take up to two years.
There is no known case of a Syrian refugee being involved in a terror plot in the U.S.
“The people who come to the U.S. from Syria are not walking over borders like in Europe,” said Robert Ford, a former ambassador to Syria in the Obama administration who is currently a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University.
“They are not taking trains without passports and visas,” Ford told The Daily Signal in an interview. “They are getting on airplanes and screened ahead of time. The public perception that these Syrian refugees are like illegal immigrants sneaking across the border does not pertain to America. We have an ocean between the U.S. and Middle East. There is a whole level of control. I am not saying it’s perfect, but compared to other security risks, it’s manageable.”
But in recent congressional testimony, critics note, FBI Director James Comey said Syrian refugees are particularly hard to screen because the war-torn country has few criminal terrorist and criminal databases to check.
“If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,” Comey said, although he assured the screening process has “improved dramatically” over time. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”
What the Order Does
Trump’s order imposes an immediate 90-day pause to the legal admission of people seeking visas—for business, family reasons, humanitarian emergencies, or tourism—from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria.
The refugee resettlement program is shut down for four months, and when it returns, Trump proposes to cut the maximum number of refugees allowed into the U.S. in fiscal 2017 from 110,000—as Obama proposed—to 50,000. In 2011 and 2012, Obama admitted less than 60,000 refugees, before ramping up the numbers in recent years.
In addition, once the Trump administration eases restrictions on visas and the refugee program, the government will prioritize those claiming religious persecution, “provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” Some observers say this means Trump will prioritize Christian refugees over Muslim ones, but the president is fighting that characterization.
Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 29, 2017
According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. admitted almost as many Christian refugees (37,521) as Muslim refugees (38,901) in the 2016 fiscal year.
A relatively small number of Syrian Christians have been admitted. Pew reports that about one-half of 1 percent of the refugees admitted in calendar year 2016 from Syria are Christian, even though they make up about 5 percent of the Syrian population.
“To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” Trump said in a statement Sunday night. “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.”
Even so, Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said blocking immigration from certain Muslim-majority nations legitimizes ISIS’ propaganda that aims to turn Muslims against the West.
“On the one hand, the Trump administration is talking about eradicating radical Islam,” Ford said.
“He is promising a hard-fisted military approach. On the other hand, measures like this will paint the American administration as at best indifferent, and more likely, hostile, to Sunni Muslims in places like Syria and Iraq who feel like they are already under attack. That will fuel jihadi recruitment, whether from individuals living in bombed out cities in Syria or in Lebanon refugee camps.”
‘Improved US Security’
Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Daily Signal that since 9/11, the U.S. has implemented enhanced security procedures to a degree that European countries have not.
Today, visa applicants from overseas are fingerprinted and photographed to check their identities against terrorist databases.
The government is better able to ensure identity by intercepting phony passports and inadequate identification, Alden said. It created a comprehensive database of people across the world with known or suspected terrorist history, and it targets people with suspicious travel or other patterns, such as how they communicate and who they are communicating with, including internet conversations.
Alden said information-sharing among allies is the most important factor underlying these security procedures, and he worries Trump’s executive order will harm that effort.
“One of the most important elements in the improved U.S. security we have seen since 9/11 is intelligence cooperation from allied governments and cooperation in particular from moderate Muslims in the United States, and around the world,” said Alden, who is author of “The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11.”
“By targeting a handful of Muslim countries in this fashion, and targeting the most vulnerable segment of this population, this will undermine our ability to solicit cooperation.”
In his executive order, Trump expresses concerns over information-sharing, and threatens to withhold visas from countries deemed insufficiently cooperative.
The president directs the relevant Cabinet agencies to review the vetting process for citizens of all countries where visas are required to travel to the U.S.
If those nations don’t improve their cooperation, they will be added to the list of countries whose citizens are barred from entry to the U.S.
Alden notes that because visa programs are supposed to be reciprocal, many of the affected countries could decide to respond to Trump’s aggressive approach by restricting American travelers.
Already, leaders in Iran and Iraq, two of the countries targeted by Trump’s order, vowed to take retaliatory action against the U.S.
‘Preparing’ for Life After ISIS
James Carafano, a national security expert at The Heritage Foundation, disagrees with this characterization and says that prudency is necessary at a time when the U.S.-led military coalition is making major gains against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“What the Trump administration is doing is taking a perfectly practical measure preparing for the time when ISIS is defeated in the Middle East and all those foreign fighters in the region will outflow, potentially targeting the United States,” said Carafano, who was on the Trump transition team. “Trump got elected to look at these things and get ahead of the threat by making sure the American people are adequately protected.”
Ford, and Bowen of the American Enterprise Institute, acknowledge the foreign fighter risk, but they consider the list of targeted nations to be flawed.
The list does not include Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, where most of the 9/11 hijackers were from. The other hijackers were from United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon, none of which are on Trump’s list.
“That list could have been put together better,” Bowen said. “It’s a bit haphazard in that countries like Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, and even European countries like Germany, France, and Belgium, have individuals fighting in Syria and Iraq. If you are going to take this action, individuals from those countries should also be strongly vetted.”
The targeted countries do share common traits.
The U.S.-led military coalition is conducting airstrikes against terrorists in five of the seven targeted countries: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia.
The U.S. government considers three of those countries to be sponsors of terrorism (Iran, Sudan, and Syria), and the Obama administration designated the others as countries of concern (Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Yemen).
Of 161 people charged with jihadist terrorism-related crimes or who died before being charged, 11 were identified as being from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, or Somalia—the countries specified in Trump’s order—The Wall Street Journal reported.
Experts note that in recent jihadist terrorist attacks, from San Bernardino to Orlando, American citizens or green card holders have been the perpetrators.
“The biggest threat to our nation is not someone coming from across the border with a visa or as a refugee,” said Mustafa Tameez, who has worked as a consultant for the Department of Homeland Security and State Department on counterterrorism issues. “The threat is from homegrown terrorists, someone who is radicalized over the internet and latches on to ISIS’ message that Islam is incompatible with Western democracy,” Tameez told The Daily Signal in an interview.
The Trump administration has adjusted the refugee policy since its rollout was heavily criticized.
On Sunday night, it said that green card holders would be exempt from the new policy. And the Pentagon reported Monday that it is compiling a list of Iraqis who have aided the U.S. military to determine if they should be exempted from Trump’s order.
“The executive order is not a policy,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, in an interview with The Daily Signal. “It’s just hitting the pause button so we can see what policy changes we need to make America safer. That’s what people aren’t getting. This isn’t the end point.”