You’ve probably heard something about this story.
President Trump signed an executive order on January 27 that banned entry into the US by anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days, and banned nearly all refugees for 120 days. Over the week that it was in effect, it caused chaos at airports, heartbreak to families inside and outside the US, and confusion throughout the US government. After several temporary or localized court rulings protecting individual people, the order was put on hold February 3 by a federal judge, and is currently being considered in court.
Trump’s policy has been hard to ignore, and the upheaval means it’s going to be in the news for a long time. But there’s a problem: There’s no single agreed-upon way to describe it that accurately reflects what the policy does.
Democrats and progressives call it a “Muslim ban,” to call attention to the policy’s roots in Trump’s Islamophobic campaign and to make the case that it’s unconstitutional discrimination. The White House goes back and forth over whether to call it a “ban” at all — it prefers the phrase “extreme vetting.” Most press outlets, trying to split the difference, call it a “travel ban.”
At Vox, we’re still struggling with which term to use. Not only are none of these terms technically accurate, but they all run the risk of being actively misleading. The fight over this policy is happening in the courts, in the public arena, and (before the judicial freeze) in airports and visa offices around the world. It’s a political fight for the Trump administration, but it’s also a policy that has already affected thousands of lives and threatens to affect thousands more.
The best we can do is give you this guide to the most common ways the order has been described so far — and explain why each one is, and isn’t, appropriate.
The critical term: “Muslim ban”
The case for using it: Just ask adviser to the president Rudy Giuliani. Here’s what he told Fox News shortly after the executive order went into effect:
So when [Trump] first announced it he said "Muslim ban." He called me up and said, "put a commission together, show me the right way to do it legally." I put a commission together with Judge Mukasey, with Congressman McCaul, Pete King, a whole group of other very expert lawyers on this. And what we did was we focused on, instead of religion, danger. The areas of the world that create danger for us. Which is a factual basis. Not a religious basis. Perfectly legal, perfectly sensible, and that's what the ban is based on.
So the case for calling Trump’s order a “Muslim ban” is pretty straightforward: It’s based on intention. In 2015, Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration to the United States. The proposal morphed over the course of 2016 into a more legally defensible country-based ban. If the “country-based” stuff is really a fig leaf, the argument goes, then the public shouldn’t let the Trump administration get away with it.
Calling it a “Muslim ban” also makes sense if, in practice, the executive order would treat Muslims differently than members of other religions. The order banned most refugees from coming to the US for four months (before being put on hold by a federal judge), but allowed and even encouraged the US to bring in persecuted “religious minorities” — and President Trump has explicitly promised to help Christians in the Middle East. If the ban exempts Christians from certain countries, but affects their Muslim neighbors, that could create de facto discrimination.
The case against using it: Ironically, it’s not actually clear that the order would end up, in practice, being quite as discriminatory as people fear — or, arguably, as President Trump promised.
The order exempts “religious minorities” from the ban on refugees but not from the ban on all entries from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen. And during the time the ban was in effect, evidence suggests that Christians from those countries were in fact banned along with Muslims — despite what Trump implied.
While the US is allowed to make case-by-case exceptions for people from those countries, during the week that the ban was in effect, Customs and Border Protection officials rejected some of the very same “Middle Eastern Christians” that President Trump promised to help — including one family of Syrian Christians whose US-citizen relatives voted for Trump in 2016.
And according to US government refugee data, more than 800 refugees got waivers to enter the US in the week the order was in place (due to a loophole in the refugee ban that allowed people “in transit” to come to the US). And 120 of those waived-in refugees were Muslim — including two Muslim refugees from banned countries — but no Christian refugees from banned countries were allowed.
By the same token, while Customs and Border Protection agents appeared to be aggressively detaining and questioning immigrants reentering the US while the ban was in place — including green card holders and citizens — it wasn’t clear to what extent this aggression fell disproportionately on particular groups. People with Jordanian passports got detained, but so did Trinidadians and former Norwegian prime ministers.
The executive order certainly opens the door for discrimination. But it doesn’t mandate it. In practice, it remains to be seen — if the order is allowed to go into effect again — how disparate the impact will be on Muslims compared with non-Muslims.
And indeed, the reason the executive order might come back into effect is that it’s not actually as obviously unconstitutional as the phrase “Muslim ban” makes it sound.
There’s another consideration: miscommunicating to people who might want to come to the US. While the US could add to the list of banned countries in future, the countries that currently send the most people to the US (like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Indonesia) aren’t covered by the ban. Calling it a “Muslim ban” risks confusing someone who can come to the US, or who could leave and return safely, to believe she can’t.
The media term: “travel ban”
The case for using it: Technically, the order does accomplish this — it prevents some people currently abroad from coming to the US, and it prevents some people currently in the US from traveling abroad and returning.
The case against using it: When someone is moving to another country to study or to work or to settle there for good, you wouldn’t say she’s “traveling” there. You would probably say that she’s moving there or, in some cases, that she’s immigrating.
Calling Trump’s executive order a “travel ban” implies that it only stops people from taking trips — but that doesn’t even begin to cover it. It is designed to stop people who were planning to come live in the US from doing so.
Per the order, Syrian refugees will be banned indefinitely. Refugees and visa holders who’d already been approved to come to the US will have to go through a new, poorly defined but possibly more stringent process. Even with parts of the ban on hold, one provision that remains in effect slashes the number of refugees allowed to come to the US this year from 110,000 to 50,000.
The phrase “travel ban” has the virtue of sounding neutral. It uses the term “ban,” which the White House occasionally rejects, but it does so in service of the argument that the policy serves only to stop people from visiting the US for the purpose of terrorist attacks.
This is wildly misleading, and it minimizes the disruption the order has caused.
The case for using it: The Trump administration’s ban on refugees entering the US for 120 days is the one part of the order that applies to the whole world. Furthermore, it’s unclear if and how the US’s refugee program will function once it does start back up. This is because the order dictates that even after the 120-day ban on all refugees ends, refugees will only be allowed to enter from countries the US trusts to have “safeguards” in place — something most countries in dire humanitarian straits, by definition, don’t have.
The case against using it: For one thing, it’s only half the ban. For another, there are exceptions written into the refugee ban (like the one for “religious minorities”), and we don’t yet know how widely those will be given out. The Trump administration granted more than 800 waivers to refugees in the first week; that probably won’t continue, but we’ll have to wait and see how much of a ban the “refugee ban” really is.
The case for using it: This highlights the bluntest part of the order: the ban on all “entries” for the next 90 days from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen. The day the executive order was released, the State Department “provisionally revoked” all visas for people from these countries, making it impossible for them to enter (or leave and reenter) the US legally.
The case against using it: A counterpart to “refugee ban,” this only gets at the other half of the order. And framing the whole order as a “visa ban” invites confusion — because it only applies to seven countries.
Talking about a “visa ban” also gets into the weeds of immigration policy terminology and litigation. People in the US whose visas have been revoked don’t necessarily lose their immigration status — they’re still here legally, they’re just kind of stuck here. Furthermore, there are two subcategories of visa — “immigrant visas” and “non-immigrant visas” — and some of the litigation fights over the executive order treat the two differently.
The case for using it: It makes clear what “travel ban” doesn’t — that would-be immigrants are being prevented from coming to the US.
The case against using it: Most immigrants from around the world aren’t being prevented from coming to the US, and many of the people affected by the ban are people on non-immigrant visas (which includes not only tourists and business visitors but also most people on work visas).
“Executive order”/”immigration order”
The case for using it: It’s the most correct way to describe what happened: On January 27, President Trump signed an executive order.
The case against using it: First, President Trump has signed several executive orders having to do with immigration. More importantly, though, Trump signing an executive order isn’t in and of itself controversial — it’s what the executive order does, in particular the visa blacklist and the refugee ban, that are controversial.
The whole executive order isn’t being fought in the courts. Only some provisions are.
The case for using it: It’s what the Trump administration wants people to use.
The case against using it: It doesn’t describe what the order does at all.
The Trump administration has tried to present the executive order as something that provides an extra layer of screening before people are allowed into the country. Yet it does not allow people into the country, and it does not increase screening for people trying to come to the US now.
What the order does is prohibit certain people from coming to the US for a certain period of time; it then says it will set more permanent policies once a better screening process is in place, and punts it to the Departments of State and Homeland Security to figure out what that better process actually is.
And, it’s important to remember that even once the administration comes up with new screening procedures, there will still be bans on who can come to the US based on countries that don’t provide enough information to the US government. It might count as “extreme vetting” for people from permitted countries, but for people from blacklisted countries, it will still be a ban.