National media programs, social media, trendy coffee shops, and dive bars across the country are buzzing with emotionally-charged rhetoric related to President Trump’s recent Executive Order regarding an immigration and travel ban for citizens of certain predominantly Islamic countries. Criticisms of the order allege everything from corruption, xenophobia, and racism to inexperience and ineptitude. Proponents of the order, however, cheer it as a long-needed first step in an urgent and radical change they see as necessarily to protecting the United States and its citizens from incoming terrorists. Regardless of our views or their extremity, though, it is important that we have an accurate understanding of the identifiable motivations behind the order, its implementation, and its potential.
One of the most divisive elements of the order has been the countries to which the non-refugee citizen ban has been applied. Some critics of both the Trump administration and of the order itself have suggested or accepted the idea that Trump selected the list of seven countries via a combination of his own personal racial, ethnic or religious bias and consideration for his personal overseas business relationships. While it may or may not be true that the list fits these considerations nicely, the list itself does not appear to have originated with Trump. The exact same seven countries are those listed around a year ago under the previous administration as countries to whose citizens visa waivers should not be granted. This also speaks to the current criticism of the Trump order accusing it of selecting countries that are not, in recent history, the countries of origin for Islamic extremist terrorism on American soil, as the previous administration seemingly completely agreed that these were the countries from which the largest threat of terrorist action existed.
Once we’re past the idea that Trump himself has unfairly or inaccurately created a list of countries to target based solely on his own personal interests, and if we accept that both the current and previous administrations believe that there is at least some level (even though those levels differ) of incoming terrorist threat from the listed countries, we can begin to examine whether or not a renovation of immigration policy was necessary and, if so, if it was correctly implemented. Upon examination of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 and of Trump’s executive order on immigration, it is undeniable that the two, while theoretically serving the same general purpose, are drastically different measures. The differences in the details of the two and in their implementation is where the most productive discussions will and should begin.
Both plans, although at different times and under different immigration circumstances, cite a need for improved immigration and entry approval processes. Trump’s executive order calls for U.S. immigration authorities to create new information requirements for visa approval and demands that any countries who do not already meet those information requirements be banned from issuing visas until they comply. The way the order reads, these requirements will apply to visa applications from all foreign countries. Stricter visa application information requirements in general do not sound to me like a particularly terrible idea. I’m also not sure that it will effectively defeat terrorism in the U.S., but I don’t know that it is harmful. In essence, I suppose I’m in favor of uniform and more thorough information requirements for visa approval, as long as it is universally applied, and this portion of the order seems to be.
If you’ve read this far, you may think that I am in favor of the President’s executive order. I am not. I believe that there are elements of it that are unfair and that the process it outlines was both poorly conceived and poorly executed. While I can weakly support a call for more thorough information requirements, I cannot support the immediate immigration freeze that has targeted citizens of specific countries while the policy change is being conducted. The current travel ban status is temporary, which is a word that is curiously lacking from the majority of conversations I’ve heard on both sides of this discussion. Refugee admissions are suspended for 120 days, and admission of all of the citizens of the seven countries are suspended for 90 days. There is a provision for waivers to be granted to specific individuals whose entry may be in the best national interest, but that is, of course, open to interpretation and judgment. There is also a loophole included for individuals who are already in transit and for whom denying entry would cause undue hardship. I assume that these two conditions are at least a part of what the lawyers in the airports are arguing in favor of the entry of individual international travellers.
The fact that the actual ban is temporary and that there are intentional methods for working around it included in the order may be enough to convince some that the order itself is not excessively unfair. There is, however, more to consider. For instance, the suspension of Syrian national refugees is specifically banned indefinitely. The wording in the order exactly is that the ban on Syrian refugees remains until the President determines otherwise. Furthermore, the order limits the total number of refugees permitted entry in 2017 to 50,000 persons. There are not parameters on the nationality of the refugees included in this total, aside from the exclusion of the Syrian refugees, but the combination of the 120-day ban on all refugees, the 90-day ban on the citizens of the six other listed countries,and the cap on total refugee entries will essentially put the refugees from those six countries at a severe entry disadvantage for the entire year.
Perhaps the most practical questions related to the order are whether the temporary bans were necessary at all and whether the entire visa improvement process could have been better implemented. Proponents of the ban will argue and have argued that the requirement revamping process will take time and that immigration had to be halted during that time to ensure that terrorists did not accelerate entry to the country in order to beat stricter future visa approval requirements. The order essentially allows for a 90-day window for the creation of the new requirements and for compliance by foreign countries with those new requirements. Logic seems to dictate that if the U.S. government creates a window during which they know they’ve enticed terrorists to seek entry, it may work in their favor that there is a short, known window versus an indefinite long-term time period. National security and vigilance could have been increased during this period to account for terrorists short-sighted enough to try to take advantage, and visa applications could have continued as they have until the compliance deadline.
The argument provided in the order itself for instituting the temporary ban is to ease the operational burden on immigration officials. This seems thinly-veiled and/or inadequately considered. It is unlikely that the same officials processing the visa application are those making policy decisions about what information will be required for visa approval in the future. It also does not explain why visa processing workers in seven specific countries for which processing is halted would have been more taxed by universal changes to policy than those working in other countries who have been allowed to continue processing.
In summary, although the selection of the specific seven countries and the treatment of these countries as those from which the government expects terrorist threats cannot be laid solely at the feet of President Trump or this administration, the temporary ban on immigration and entry by citizens of these countries is probably unfair, ineffective, and misguided. I must, to some extent, support the reasonable improvement of an information gathering process if the existing process is deemed inadequate. However, I find the measures taken in the name of improving the visa approval process as a result of this order to be almost completely unnecessary and at least partially unjust. My hope is that the unfortunate effects of this order will at least be short-lived. I also hope, as always, that both sides of the issue can be reasonable, rational, and fair when debating, executing, and correcting the issue.