Why Many Americans Are Rising Up Against Trump’s Refugee Order

President Trump’s refugee travel ban and suspension of resettlement have provoked protests and broad condemnation. Kathleen Newland, cofounder of the Migration Policy Institute, examines arguments that the order will hurt the U.S. economy, security and global leadership.

Written by Kathleen Newland Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A protest took place on January 31, 2017 at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, in response to the Trump administration’s recent executive order blocking entry of refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Sean Rayford/Getty Images/AFP

President Trump’s executive order halting refugee resettlement and implementing a travel ban on seven countries has generated widespread criticism since it was signed on January 27.

Pundits, preachers and protesters alike – the first group including some who usually support President Trump’s positions – have condemned the concept, the consequences and the implementation. Of the president’s formal decisions so far – barely 10 days into his term of office – this one seems to have given the deepest offense to the widest spectrum.

Two provisions of the executive order cause greatest concern. One is a 90-day ban on travel to the United States by foreigners from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The other is a 120-day suspension of refugee resettlement accompanied by a reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2017 from a prior ceiling of 110,000 to 50,000. The bar to Syrian refugees would last indefinitely, until the president decides to lift it.

Make America Safe Again?

There are multiple and varied grounds for the objections to the order that have surfaced in the days since it was issued.

One source of opposition is the disconnect between the order’s purpose and its targets. Many of the home countries of terrorists who have committed lethal attacks on U.S. soil are not on the list, including Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The list of seven seems to be simply a matter of expediency; it includes countries on a pre-existing list of state sponsors of terrorism or countries with an al-Qaida presence. It is not a carefully chosen list of countries that pose a real threat of infiltrating terrorists into the United States.

The refugee program is an even less suitable vehicle for measures aimed at preventing the entry of terrorists. The U.S. resettlement program stringently vets all applicants for resettlement in a many-layered process that often takes up to two years, with multiple biographical and biometric screenings against security databases as well as several in-person interviews. No foreign national coming to the United States undergoes more vetting than a prospective refugee.

Since the resettlement program was created in 1980, more than 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States. Not one has carried out a lethal attack on U.S. soil. (Two Somali refugees attacked crowds in 2016 without killing anyone or inflicting major injuries.)

Denting U.S. Power

Foreign-policy experts from across the political spectrum see the order as a self-inflicted wound that will damage U.S. interests. It strikes a blow at the “soft power” advantage that persuades other countries and peoples to cooperate with the United States in pursuing common goals, by denting the U.S. reputation as a generous and welcoming country for law-abiding people of all faiths and origins.

But it has “hard power” repercussions, as well. This is perhaps most obvious in banning Iraqis from entering the United States even as U.S. soldiers are fighting alongside Iraqi troops to liberate the ISIS-held city of Mosul. The travel ban would likely bar Iraqi pilots from training at U.S. facilities and prevent Iraqi generals and senior officials from meeting with their American counterparts in the United States.

More generally, the executive order undercuts important American allies such as Jordan and Kenya by abrogating a resettlement program that provides at least a symbolic safety valve for countries hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. It gives a valuable recruitment asset to Muslim extremists.

Many people fear that the order will legitimize anti-Muslim prejudice, coming from a president who during his campaign called for a “complete and total ban on all Muslims” entering the country. The danger of inspiring violence seemed to be born out within days as a white, Canadian-born, right-wing extremist (who “liked” Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen on his Facebook page) killed six people and injured 18 in a mosque in Quebec.

Confusingly, the White House press secretary said in response: “It’s a terrible reminder of why we need to remain vigilant and why the president is taking steps to be proactive …” (Canada is not on the list of proscribed countries.) The logic of using an attack on Muslims by a non-Muslim to argue for suspension of immigration and stricter vetting for nationals from Muslim-majority countries is elusive.

American Values

The thousands of protesters who turned out at U.S. airports and in the streets were offended by what they saw as the executive order’s violation of core American values – what one might call “Statue of Liberty values.” The idea of the United States as a haven for oppressed and persecuted people is deeply held by Americans of both liberal and conservative beliefs, articulated in both secular and religious terms.

Faith-based organizations and leaders spoke against the order from the pulpit. World Vision, a coalition of evangelical Christian groups, wrote a letter to President Trump that said, “We believe the refugee resettlement program provides a lifeline to these uniquely vulnerable individuals and a vital opportunity for our churches to live out the biblical command to love our neighbors.” Protesters’ signs said, “Lift our lamp,” “Keep the golden door open” (referring to Emma Lazarus’ poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty) and, simply, “Refugees welcome here.”

Some American citizens and permanent residents had more direct and personal fears about the consequences of the executive order – that the countries included in the travel ban would reciprocate, leaving them unable to visit relatives or conduct business in the targeted countries. Already, Iraq and Iran said they plan to block visas for American citizens.

Talent Pool

The economic impact of the executive order will not be clear for some time, and depends on how quickly the travel bans are reversed, how many additional countries are added to the list and how many potential immigrants are sufficiently repelled by the order that they decide to go somewhere else.

Silicon Valley, where roughly half of tech startups were founded by immigrants, is a leading critic of the order. Refugees have founded some of the greatest American companies, such as Google and Intel. The late Steve Jobs of Apple was the grandson of a Syrian immigrant. Keeping away refugees and immigrants will reduce U.S. access to the world’s talent pool, from which it has been the major beneficiary.

Even reliable allies of the president, such as Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, lamented the confused and sloppy implementation of the executive order – especially the detention at U.S. airports of legal permanent residents, as well as refugees and other travelers with valid visas who started their journeys before the order was released.

Some aspects of the order have been further clarified in recent days, such as the admissibility of legal permanent residents from the seven named countries, and some have been stayed by federal court orders, such as the deportation of holders of valid visas. But confusion still reigns about how U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers are meant to implement the order.

More significant in the long term is how the United States and the world interact: in partnership and with common purpose, or with suspicion and hostility. President Trump’s executive order will make the world a more dangerous place. It will not make Americans, or anyone else, safer.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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