On Friday, President Donald Trump overhauled US refugee policy — laying the groundwork for a fundamental shift in how the US allows people to enter the country.
Trump signed an executive order Friday afternoon that bans all immigrants and visa holders from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days, and opens the door to more country-based bans in future.
It also bans all refugee admissions for 120 days — and bans Syrian refugees indefinitely. It slashes the US’s refugee quota for 2017 to less than half of the level set by President Obama, directs the US to prioritize “religious minorities” for the remaining slots, and bars all refugees from countries that aren’t specifically approved by the US government.
And it tasks the federal government with coming up with a new process to screen everyone hoping to immigrate to the US, one that requires each individual immigrant to prove she or he would be a “positively contributing member of society.”
The Trump administration is framing the executive order as a security measure: It is titled “Protecting the Nation From Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.” But the restrictions it poses on refugees in particular are much broader than the actual security reforms it introduces.
In the midst of a global refugee crisis (with more people living as refugees than ever before and staying refugees for longer) the order will, both by design and due to predictable consequences, result in the US taking a fraction of the refugees it’s taken in the past couple of years. It will also fundamentally alter the composition of who is able to come to the United States for humanitarian reasons — showing, in many cases, the greatest skepticism and least openness to people facing the most immediate harm abroad.
Trump is cutting US refugee admissions to a fraction of previous levels
Since World War II, the United States has been the world’s leader in resettling refugees; half of all refugees who are permanently resettled in a third country (somewhere that isn’t the refugee’s country of origin or the place she initially flees to) resettle in the US.
The Trump administration has ended that era.
The order Trump signed requires that the government not approve any refugees for resettlement for 120 days. Refugees who’ve already been approved to come to the US but haven’t yet physically arrived — unless they’re literally “in transit” — will only be able to come once the government has reviewed, proposed, and implemented “additional procedures ... to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States.”
Since the Refugee Act of 1980, the federal government has suspended refugee admissions only once before: from just after September 11, 2001, to December 11, 2001. The Trump administration’s executive order presumes that the US needs to take longer reviewing refugee procedures in 2017 than it did after 9/11.
Even after the US resumes refugee admissions, it will happen at a slower pace. In part, this is intentional: Trump is using executive authority to reset the refugee quota from 110,000 for fiscal year 2017 (which is where Obama had set it) to 50,000. Since 30,000 refugees have already been resettled since October 1, only 20,000 more can be resettled over the next eight months — roughly a quarter of Obama’s pace.
But the US might not even meet that quota, due to the shutdown. The US isn’t simply suspending the approval of refugees — it’s suspending every part of the process by which it vets refugees. If the US didn’t have much of a vetting process in place, this wouldn’t be much of a disruption. But the US has a stringent vetting process, which takes the better part of two years. While the refugee program is paused, that vetting cannot go forward. When it starts back up, it’s extremely likely that the “additional procedures” the executive order asks the government to come up with will make the process even longer.
Indeed, something similar happened after the post-9/11 pause. Instead of the pause making it easier to incorporate new security checks, the new procedures only exacerbated the delay. The result was that during fiscal year 2002 (which started October 1, 2001), the US admitted barely a third of the number of refugees it had the year before. It took eight years for refugee resettlement numbers to reach pre-9/11 levels again.
The “extreme vetting” proposals don’t involve new security ideas
As a candidate and, more recently, as a president, Donald Trump assailed the US as careless when it comes to letting in immigrants: He has claimed the US’s borders are “weak” and refugees are admitted without the US having any idea who they are. The implication seemed to be that there were obvious things the government could and should be doing, and that President Trump would do them.
None of that is evidenced in this executive order. The Trump administration has referred to this order as “extreme vetting,” but the only concrete change to the visa screening process made in the executive order is a requirement that all applicants for visas have a face-to-face interview with a consular officer. (This is actually just a suspension of the “Visa Interview Waiver Program.”)
The order opens the door to further changes, though. It orders a broad review of visa screening procedures by the government, with requirements for what an appropriate screening process would include. Most of those requirements, like “a mechanism to assess whether the applicant has the intent to commit terrorist or criminal acts after entering the US,” are things the government is already doing to the best of its abilities — and likely couldn’t do to a greater extent without simply, well, banning large classes of immigrants.
The ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries is just one way in which, under Trump, the US’s treatment of immigrants will be tied to their governments
Even before the Trump administration determines its new screening procedures, it’s taking precautionary measures. The executive order stipulates that for the next 90 days, the US will not take any immigrants or visa holders from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen. (Other countries could be added to that list at a later date if they don’t provide certain information to the US about applicants.)
But the executive order singles out refugees for an even stricter standard — one that presumes exclusion rather than inclusion. Instead of the US blacklisting countries whose residents can’t come to the US, it’s whitelisting countries that can. This means that after the 120-day refugee ban has ended, refugees will only be allowed to enter the US if they come from countries where the US government believes procedures are in place to “ensure the security and welfare of the United States.”
In practice, this will mean that the Trump administration will only admit refugees from countries that are stable enough and friendly enough for the Trump administration to trust. Those don’t tend to be the countries that generate the most refugees.
The international law governing refugees defines them as people who are fleeing persecution on particular grounds, and most courts (including in the US) tend to interpret “persecution” to mean “at the hands of the government.” When the US trusts a country to keep its citizens safe, it doesn’t usually accept refugees from that country. Under the Trump administration, the opposite will be the case.
Most dire humanitarian situations around the world today — Syrians in Syria and in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan; Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; certain ethnic groups in South Sudan — involve either victims who are being persecuted by weak governments (as in Syria and South Sudan) or governments that have systematically worked to marginalize and obstruct the targeted group (as in Myanmar).
Since World War II, refugee policy in the US (and in other countries following the US’s lead) has been made on the premise that there are evils being committed in the world against powerless groups, and that it is the duty of stable and wealthy countries to protect members of those groups. Trump’s executive order makes it clear that this administration does not share that sense of obligation.
The US’s indefinite ban on Syrian refugees is the logical extension of “America first” thinking
The Syrian refugee crisis is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world. Nearly 5 million Syrians have been forced to become refugees by the country’s civil war, with most of them living in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
In refusing to settle any Syrian refugees indefinitely, the Trump administration is implementing a policy that many Republicans called for after the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015. Though the attacks were not carried out by Syrian refugees (much less refugees in the US), the attacks sparked panic that the Syrian refugee crisis could be exploited by terrorists as a way to gain access to Western countries and commit acts of terror.
Republicans seized on a comment FBI Director James Comey made in a congressional hearing in October 2015: “If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database [...] there will be nothing to show up because we have no record on that person.”
Comey's statement was true, insofar as it implied that there's no such thing as a screening program that eliminates all risk of error (though it reflected a misunderstanding of the actual problems in screening Syrian refugees). But now the Trump administration has taken it to a new level: The slight risk of letting the wrong refugee in is more important than the benefits of letting in the right ones.
The new refugee policy is based on the idea that there might be a “right side” and a “wrong side” in Syria but it’s not the US’s obligation to find out which side you’re on, or to protect you if you’re on the right side. Syrians who were involved in the civil war are presumed “terrorists”; Syrians who weren’t are suspicious because they don’t show up in databases.
This was also the premise of the original “America First” movement, the one that Trump echoed in his inauguration speech, which rose to prevent American intervention in World War II.
The position of the original America Firsters was isolationist: Europe’s problems were Europe’s, and there wasn’t a US obligation to intervene on one side of the conflict. Indeed, they believed the risk that Nazis would send spies to pose as Jewish refugees outweighed the obligation to take in Jews fleeing the Nazis.
That isolationism has aged poorly, in light of what we now know about the enormity of the Holocaust and its the subsequent status as quintessential example of state-perpetuated evil. But the same idea — that the US does not have an obligation to sort out who the real victims are — is now written into government policy.
The “religious minorities” exception suggests that this is about culture rather than security
The executive order does lay out one circumstance in which welcoming refugees is also good for Americans.
During the 120-day refugee ban, the US will still take in refugees under two circumstances. It will honor preexisting international agreements (presumably a reference with an agreement to Australia to resettle some refugees currently being detained in Nauru). And it will welcome “religious minorities” who are being persecuted by their governments. And once the rest of the refugee program starts up again, the US will give preference to “religious minorities” over all other refugees.
Trump, in comments Friday, made clear what this means: “We are going to help” Christians in the Middle East.
Again, if this were a simple matter of weighing security risks, this exemption would make no sense. There is no logic by which someone claiming to be a Christian is ipso facto less of a risk than someone claiming to be a Muslim.
It does make sense as politics. Evangelical Christians have long been concerned about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East; they’re also the group in the Republican coalition that puts the highest value on welcoming refugees. The “religious-minority” loophole gives an ally of the Trump administration — one that might have objected vociferously to this move — something it wants.
The exception could also be simply an expression of ideology. By the logic of America First, the US doesn’t have an obligation to refugees on humanitarian grounds; what it has is a self-interest in accepting people who are similar to certain Americans already here and will thus maintain the cultural status quo.
The idea that being an “American” implies a certain ideology, culture, and values common to Americans (often, implicitly, white European Americans) was a common theme that Trump expressed on the campaign trail, and that his senior advisor Steve Bannon, among others, has expressed for a long time. Immigrants who come from outside that culture are expected to assimilate to it, or else they’re suspected of not being loyal to America at all.
The new standards for screening immigrants, laid out in the executive order, could turn these values into an explicit part of the immigration process.
The executive order lays the groundwork for the government to judge individual immigrants based on “the applicant’s likelihood of becoming a positive contributing member of society, and the applicant’s ability to make contributions to the national interest.” By the same token, the executive order directs the federal government to make sure state and local governments have control over which refugees can settle in their communities — an apparent reference to the attempt of many Republican governors, including now-Vice President Mike Pence, to stop Syrian refugees from resettling in their states in 2015.
For most immigrants, proving it was in the “national interest” to admit them was always part of the process; people can be banned from settling permanently in the US if they’re likely to be a “public charge,” for example. But refugees were the exception. They weren’t evaluated on their similarity to Americans already here, or on their earning potential. They were evaluated on the basis of their humanitarian need. The US accepted refugees as an expression of universal human rights.
Behind all the practical changes to refugee and visa policy in the new executive order, there’s a major philosophical change. A responsibility to humanity is no longer fundamental to US immigration policy.