Revised Executive Order on Muslim Immigration and Refugees Continues to Betray Humanitarian Values and American Security
On 6 March 2017, the Trump administration signed a revised executive order banning entry into the U.S. by nationals of six Muslim-majority countries – Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – for 90 days, suspending refugee resettlement for 120 days, and lowering the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from 110,000 to 50,000 in fiscal year 2017. Promulgated in the name of national security and protecting the U.S. from foreign terrorist threats, this revised order is a step back from the more sweeping original ban issued on January 27th, which prompted nation-wide protests and was suspended by U.S. federal courts in February. Nonetheless, at its core the policy remains cruel and misguided. It continues to betray humanitarian (and American) norms while doing little to keep Americans safe.
Suspending refugee admissions violates humanitarian norms
The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, and has long been a leader in offering safe haven to refugees from the world over. While the current administration’s policy is not without historical precedent, it represents a fundamental departure from the humanitarian norms which the U.S. is bound to respect.
From Syrian and Iraqi families fleeing ISIS-inflicted terror or Assad’s barrel bombs to Somalis fleeing al Shabaab violence, the refugees in question do not migrate out of choice, but to escape from the same violence, persecution and terror the U.S. has dedicated its armed forces, security services, and diplomatic assets to combat. Now those fleeing stated enemies of the United States are finding that the government they thought of as an ally is the most callous to their needs.
In fact, refugee admissions to the U.S. account for an incredibly small proportion of the world’s displaced. War and persecution have driven a record of over 65 million people from their homes around the world; according to the UN Refugee Agency, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee – 51% of them are children. Far from being overburdened, last year the U.S. ranked 75th worldwide in refugees hosted per capita; it admitted around 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, with the greatest number coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo (16,370).
By discriminating against refugees and immigrants en masse on the basis of nationality (and Muslim religion) alone, the original executive order flew in the face of both U.S. and international law. While more narrowly tailored in an attempt to survive the legal challenges which led to the original version’s suspension by U.S. courts, e.g. by exempting people with existing immigrant and non-immigrant visas, the revised version of the travel ban remains questionable under domestic and international law. This includes the universal obligations of states to protect those fleeing persecution under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which forms part of the body of international laws and institutions which the U.S. was instrumental in creating out of the ashes of World War II. The executive order also appears to violate the human rights guarantee of equal treatment before the law of all persons, without discrimination on any ground such as race, religion, or national or social origin (enshrined in Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the U.S. is a party). The new administration’s callousness towards refugees is therefore not only a violation of American values, but of its obligations to humanity.
As such, the order has prompted widespread criticism and challenges from civil and human rights organizations. According to Human Rights Watch senior U.S. researcher Grace Meng:
In the name of fighting terrorism, the new order will scapegoat refugees and send a message that Muslims are not welcome in the US. It will abandon tens of thousands of refugees who need to be taken out of precarious situations, and cedes US leadership on a vitally important global issue.
In the words of Amnesty International’s Salil Shetty: “Trump’s efforts to slam the door on those fleeing terror will be remembered among the darkest chapters of American history.”
Banning refugees will not make America safer
The administration’s order falsely conflates refugees and other immigrants with terrorists despite abundant evidence to the contrary. In the order, the President frames immigrants and refugees as a terrorist threat to the United States, stating “The Attorney General has reported to me that more than 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Despite the administration’s rhetoric, however, there is little evidence linking refugees to terrorist attacks in the U.S. The revised executive order itself offers only two cases as evidence, both which serve to refute rather than affirm the logic behind the order. The first case, despite Iraq's removal from the list of banned countries, was of two Iraqi nationals falsely referred to by the President’s senior adviser as perpetrating the “Bowling Green Massacre” which did not in fact occur. And the second, a Somali national and naturalized U.S. citizen who was admitted to the U.S. as a child refugee – despite the fact that a temporary travel ban or more intense screening would do nothing to prevent the radicalization of an individual raised in the U.S.
A recently leaked report by Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security contradicts the administration’s basic claim that immigrants and refugees from the seven countries included in the original ban pose a terrorist threat to the U.S. According to the report, of the 82 individuals identified as terrorism subjects in the U.S. since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, “[…] slightly more than half were native-born United States citizens. Of the foreign-born individuals, they came from 26 different countries, with no one country representing more than 13.5 percent of the foreign-born total.” The top seven origin countries reported by DHS are Pakistan (5), Somalia (3), Bangladesh, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iraq and Uzbekistan (2). Of that list, only Somalia is covered by the administration’s latest travel ban, while Iraq was removed from the list of banned countries in the revised version.
Rather, as the DHS report and numerous other reports have shown, it is not foreigners but radicalized Americans that pose the greatest threat. Indeed, recent attacks in the U.S. and Europe, from Paris and Brussels to Orlando, San Bernardino, and Boston, have been carried out by homegrown terrorists and not recent immigrants or refugees, with few exceptions. According to a report by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, the “vast majority” of individuals that have been charged in the U.S. with offenses related to the Islamic State are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. As Nora Ellingsen writes, “Since January 2015, the FBI has also arrested more anti-immigrant American citizens plotting violent attacks on Muslims within the U.S. than it has refugees, or former refugees, from any banned country.” Similarly, notes Ellingsen:
More Americans have snuck into Syria to join ISIL, than ISIL members have snuck into the United States. In September 2015, a congressional report indicated that 250 Americans have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIL. By comparison, as of December 2015, only 71 individuals in the United States had been charged with ISIL-related activities—the vast majority of whom were also U.S. citizens, according to George Washington University.
The executive order suspends the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) pending a review of screening and vetting procedures. Yet according to U.S. officials, refugees already undergo a more stringent security screening process than any other category of traveler to the United States. First, refugees are identified and screened by the UN Refugee Agency, which refers less than 1% of the global refugee population for resettlement. Those refugees referred to the U.S. are then screened by multiple national security agencies over a period of nearly two years before being granted admission to the U.S.
The national security justification provided thus misidentifies the potential threat posed to the U.S. by refugees from these six Muslim-majority countries (notably excluding Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. or Egypt, which have exported more terrorists to the U.S., but with which Trump has business ties), while neglecting to address much more serious threats to national security from domestic and foreign nationals alike. Defending the order, White House spokesman Sean Spicer stressed that it would only restrict “people from a country that has a propensity to do us harm.” Yet on 9/11, in the most devastating attack on US soil, as invoked by the executive order, not a single one of the attackers – Saudi, Emirati, Jordanian and Egyptian – would have been prevented from entering the U.S. by a policy such as this. According to research by the Cato Institute:
[...] the chance of an American perishing in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil that was committed by a foreigner [between 1975 and 2015] is 1 in 3.6 million per year. […] the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.
Moreover, no terrorist from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya or Yemen has carried out a lethal attack in the U.S. since 1975. It follows that the administration’s executive order restricting immigration and refugees from these countries will be utterly ineffective at improving U.S. security, while inflicting serious harm and hardship on those most in need of assistance.
Arbitrarily restricting Muslim immigration is bad foreign policy
The travel ban is not only ineffective, but counterproductive. Rather than making America safer, the executive order is already having the opposite effect by undermining relationships with U.S. allies and fomenting hatred of the U.S.
Rather than limiting their ability to harm the U.S., the administration’s policies are tantamount to handing terrorists groups a strategic victory. As successfully argued by opponents of the ban in court, the original executive order was widely seen an extension of President Trump’s campaign rhetoric calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S., amidst a wider perception of a war with Islam.
Accordingly, many observers continue to see the policy as a “Muslim ban” which is only inflaming tensions in the Middle East. “The only way to actually fix the Muslim ban is not to have a Muslim ban,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrant Rights Project. “Trump’s new travel ban is as arbitrary and senseless as the first,” writes the Washington Post Editorial Board, “The courts will decide whether the order, which renews the suspension of all refugee resettlement for 120 days, passes legal muster. Already clear is that it remains antithetical to American interests, values, tradition and security.” As the New York Times writes, “While it may disrupt fewer lives, the new ban, and its justification, conveys the same spurious messages: that Muslims are inherently dangerous and that resettling refugees represents a dire threat.”
The policy is also undermining relations with U.S. allies in the fight against violent extremism. In particular, creating distrust and fear amongst Muslim communities in the U.S. and abroad will hinder the government’s ability to investigate and prosecute crimes of terrorism, and most importantly, will make it more difficult to stop terrorist planning cells by driving a wedge between law enforcement and Muslim communities. In Iraq, which was excluded from the revised order after pressure from the State Department and the Pentagon, writes Declan Walsh, “the initial ban had been taken as a grievous insult from an ally it was supposed to be partnering with in the fight against the Islamic State.” Unsurprisingly, some jihadist groups have celebrated the policy as a victory.
Misguided policy, foresaken commitments
While more narrowly tailored than its sweeping predecessor, the Trump administration’s revised executive order banning refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries remains inhumane, ineffective, and misguided. It betrays U.S. national security, American values, and fundamental humanitarian norms, while exacerbating the same forces of hatred and sectarianism that the U.S. seeks to combat.
Rather than falsely conflating refugees with the same terror they have risked life and limb to flee, it is imperative for the U.S. to reassert its global commitments – not just because helping families flee violence and persecution is the law, but because the success of our foreign policy, the security of our nation, and the fulfillment of our humanitarian ideals depend upon it.
Legal Research Associate
Julia Brooks is a Legal Research Associate at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), where she focuses on international humanitarian law, policy and education. For the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA), she serves as host and producer of the Humanitarian Assistance Podcast series; a researcher focusing on international humanitarian law and humanitarian protection; and a managing editor and contributor to the ATHA blog and paper series. She also contributes as a writer, teaching fellow and consultant to curriculum development for e-learning tools, online and in-person courses developed by the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard.
Previously, Julia worked in Berlin, Germany at the Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility & Future" (Stiftung EVZ), Adelphi Research & Consult, the German Parliament (Bundestag), and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a Senior Fellow with Humanity in Action. She has also worked at the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR) in Sarajevo, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, The Netherlands. She holds a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she received the Alfred P. Rubin Prize and Leo Gross Prize for excellence in international law, and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Public Policy from Brown University, magna cum laude.