The last 48 hours’ flow of immigration policy-related news has been unprecedented – or certainly nearly so. To me, the big takeaway is clear: In the course of developing and announcing a fundamentally sound policy framework for handling immigration- and refugee-related national security issues, the Trump administration has allowed vague and/or confusing provisions to create an unnecessary political firestorm.
The needless confusion stemmed mainly from the apparent treatment of green card holders in the Executive Order on “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” These individuals have been granted permanent resident legal status by the U.S. government, and have extensively vetted. Perhaps that’s why the Order makes no specific mention of them.
Yet early yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seemed to confirm that the Orders’s 90-day ban on entry into the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries deemed (correctly) to be hotbeds of terrorism and/or Islamic extremism includes green card holders.
Both moves seemed so mystifying that my first reaction was skepticism. Particularly fishy to me was the source of the DHS statement. It came from a department spokesperson identified by name. But she was described as “acting,”and given that we’re still in the new administration’s earliest days, it was legitimate to wonder where she got her information and whether it’s accurate. And indeed, shortly afterwards, “senior administration officials” (who oddly remained nameless) were saying that the green card measures would be administered on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, this sequence of events doesn’t speak well at all for the togetherness of the new administration’s act.
But there’s no reasonable doubt that much of the tumult that’s surrounded the rest of the Trump immigration moves is nothing more than another outburst of stealth chattering class support for Open Borders policies. This charge is justified for at least two reasons:
First, the notion that Trump’s refugee measures represent a wholesale trashing of America’s humanitarian heritage is juvenile at best and reckless and ignorant (or both) at worst. The Trump-haters who have claiming that the Statue of Liberty is weeping and the like seem to be ignoring how even Barack Obama severely limited refugee admissions from war-torn Syria – to 10,000 in 2016. The previous year, only 1,800 were resettled. And clearly reflecting security concerns, the screening process typically took between 18 and 24 months.
Why didn’t President Obama simply open America’s doors much wider and faster to the immiserated Syrian hordes? Because even he recognized that the nation’s most fundamental self-interest – the safety of its existing citizens and legal residents – can’t be brushed aside even in the face of the most terrible tragedies.
President Trump and many others doubted, however, that even this screening was adequate. And they could point to copious compelling evidence. Principally, mass Middle East refugee admissions have in Europe have included terrorists involved in deadly attacks. In the United States, children of recent Middle East refugees or other immigrants have been responsible for the shootings and bombings in Orlando, Florida; San Bernardino, California, Boston, and Fort Hood. And Muslim residents have been involved (including arrested) in terrorism attempts in numbers vastly higher than their share of the overall American population.
Combine this with the virtual impossibility of getting accurate, reliable records from virtually destroyed countries or thoroughly failed states, and the real question before Americans is not why President Trump has banned entry of any kind from these lands, but why broad restrictions have taken so long to impose.
Second, it’s been frequently argued (including by President Obama) that even if refugees can be tied to terrorist attacks, the numbers of Americans killed have been infinistesimal. In particular, they’re fond of noting that the odds are lower than getting killed in bathroom accidents or everyday activities like driving.
What they keep missing, of course, is the completely different role of government negligence – and therefore preventability or avoidability – involved. Fatal accidents at home, for example, can often be avoided by moving with greater care, or more properly maintaining fixtures or appliances, or keeping clutter off the floor, or in numerous other ways. It’s also entirely possible to increase your chances of surviving your daily auto commute to work – by driving more defensively, by caring for your vehicle, by staying off the road in bad weather, etc.
Will these precautions guarantee your protection 100 percent? Of course not. In particular, they can’t completely remove the related elements of randomness and chance from life – tripping over a hard-to-see uneven stretch of pavement, sharing a road with a drunk driver, or flying in an airplane disabled by a flock of birds, experiencing a natural disaster, etc. Speaking of that last item, I would include in this category a decision like moving to or staying an earthquake-prone location, especially if relocating is a relatively easy option – though the element of randomness there is more debatable.
But reasonable people seem to accept these kinds of inevitable bad breaks. They understand the irrationality of shutting themselves in at home, for example, to stay safe. As for injuries or fatalities resulting from violence perpetrated by individuals admitted to the United States by a policy decision that ignores or downplays well known risks – they’re dramatically and unacceptably different. For there is nothing random about them; indeed, every last one of them was completely preventable. They’re the products of elected leaders who believe that the loss of American lives – in situations well short of war – are acceptable risks to run in exchange for benefits that, to put it kindly, are intangible (e.g., winning good will abroad), speculative (e.g., impeding recruitment by terrorist groups), or subjective (conforming with American values), or some combination of the two.
It’s certainly arguable that the previous administration was well within its rights in making those judgments and decisions. President Obama, after all, was legitimately elected – twice. But it’s just as arguable that Donald Trump’s White House victory owed in part to the public’s rejection of these calculations.
Having said this, at least two more aspects of the new Trump refugee policies are disturbing. First, why were countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan excluded – especially given the role of Saudis and Egyptians in the September 11 attacks cited explicitly by the Executive Order, and the role of Pakistan’s state security forces in supporting a wide range of terrorist activities, including strikes on U.S. Forces and facilities in Afghanistan?
Second, the Executive Order, in my view, admirably seeks to “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” But for precisely the same vetting-related reasons that it’s excruciatingly difficult to make sure that Syrians (and other Middle Easterners) aren’t terrorists or other dangerous types, it’s going to be equally difficult to figure out who’s a member of a persecuted religious minority and who isn’t.
I agree with President Trump that the previous U.S. refugee policy created too many unnecessary security risks, and also that temporary freezes and bans and the like in general are needed to enable his administration to develop a detailed alternative – including better vetting procedures . I also admire the vigor with which Mr. Trump has plunged into the presidency. But in the case of this Executive Order, it looks like too much haste might have needlessly created serious problems today, and the potential for more down the road.