This essay is part of our collection on Islam and immigration. See the full collection here.
907 Jewish refugees were on board the MS St. Louis when Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to let them dock in Miami in 1939. The captain of the ship, Gustav Schröder, wanted to run his ship aground, which would have allowed the refugees to disembark on American soil, but US Coast Guard vessels kept the ship away from the shore. Captain Shröder was forced to take his passengers back to Europe.
254 of the refugees subsequently died in the Holocaust.
Every January 27 is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day when Americans remember with shame our refusal to come to the aid of Jews who were fleeing the horrors of Nazism. January 27, 2017, was the day on which President Trump signed an immigration executive order (EO) that upended the lives of thousands of vulnerable people. The EO separated parents from their children, prevented patients from getting medical treatment, and jeopardized friends and allies in Iraq who have fought alongside us in the war against ISIS.
Among many others, the order barred entry to Iraqi Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi lawmaker whose speech in Parliament in 2014 prompted President Obama to take action against ISIS. Dakhil was en route to Washington to receive the Lantos Human Rights Prize at the US Capitol. The order also banned the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil in Iraq, Bashar Warda. Warda is an advocate for the 200,000 Christians displaced by ISIS. His church has sheltered thousands of displaced Iraqis.
Less visible to the public was the anguish suffered by the 60,000 refugees who are languishing in refugee camps. They have already been granted security clearances to come to the United States but will now be denied entry.
The courts have stayed parts of Trump’s executive order, and the administration has promised to issue a new executive order that rests on firmer legal ground. Left untouched by the court rulings, however, was the refugee limit set out in the original order, which cut the refugee cap from 110,000 to 50,000. Because 35,000 refugees have already been admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2017, only 15,000 slots are open for the remainder of the year. The US State Department has directed embassies to slow admission of refugees for the month of February and suspend it completely after March 3.
The United States currently admits a fraction of a percent of the world’s 65 million refugees. The United States has far fewer refugees per capita than Canada, Britain, France, or Germany. Last year, the United States accepted 37,521 Christian refugees and 38,901 Muslim refugees. The largest number of those refugees were from The Congo (16,370), followed by Syria (12,587), Burma (12,347), Iraq (9,880) and Somalia (9,020).
Refugees Pose Little Threat to Our National Security
The official rationale for President Trump’s suspension of our refugee program—protecting Americans from terrorists—is impossible to defend. Refugees are already subject to extreme vetting, and they are much less likely than the general American population to commits acts of violence. In 2016, the Cato Institute published a study titled “Terrorism and Risk Analysis,” which determined that no refugee has committed an act of terror in the United States since the 1970s, when three Cubans killed a Chilean dissident, an American aide, and a Cuban exile leader.
Since 1980, when rigorous refugee-screening procedures were put in place, there have been no terrorist attacks committed by refugees. The Cato Institute concludes that the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is one in 3.64 billion a year.
President Trump warns that without his leadership the United States could become like Europe. This is disingenuous. Europe is being overwhelmed by millions of unvetted migrants fleeing from neighboring countries who have the right to asylum under international treaties. The United States is separated by geography from war-torn, failed states. As a result, we accept very few asylum seekers.
Instead, the United States accepts refugees from UN-monitored refugee camps, where they are vetted for a period of one to three years before gaining refugee status. Refugees are currently subjected to more extreme vetting by the United States than is any other group of people. They have to undergo four biometric security tests, face-to-face interviews, and background checks by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and the National Counterterrorism Center. When and if the ban is lifted, refugees who have security clearances to come to the United States and have been barred from entry by this new ban will not be able to pick up the process where they left off. Their clearances will have expired, and they will have to begin the lengthy vetting process from scratch.
“There is no question that this policy further traumatizes some of the most vulnerable people that this world has known,” says Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief. “It continues to keep families separated. Seventy percent of the families we resettle are family reunifications. And seventy percent of the refugees are women and children.”
In America, the government works with non-governmental organizations, most of which are faith-based, to receive refugees and integrate them into American culture. David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that works with refugees, said that in the past decade refugees have started at least thirty-eight new businesses just in and around Cleveland, Ohio, creating 175 jobs and adding $12 million to the local economy.
Scott Arbeiter asks, “Are [Americans not] willing to accept giving up a one in three billion chance of our safety in order to welcome people who have been vetted very carefully, who have proven as a remarkable population of people?”
Refugees Have Become Pawns in Our Political Games
Benjamin Wittes, who chairs the Hoover Institution’s Working Group on National Security, doubts that Trump’s executive order was designed to make America safer. Rather, he argues that the order was a cynical attempt to score domestic political points at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable people.
The authors of the executive order, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, are political operatives with no national security expertise. The final draft of the document was only reviewed by career staff at the Department of Homeland Security on the day the order was issued. The Pentagon had not vetted the order. Customs and Border Protection and US Citizen and Immigration Services only learned of the order when the president was actually signing it.
“You don’t target the wrong people in nutty ways when you’re rationally pursuing real security objectives,” Wittes writes. You do these things when you’ve made a deliberate decision to inflict harm on human beings for symbolic reasons. Kevin Drum concludes that “Bannon wanted turmoil and condemnation. He wanted this executive order to get as much publicity as possible.” For Bannon, the executive order was a big public relations stunt.
Since 9/11, American presidents have had to make painful decisions that unintentionally sacrificed innocent lives in the interests of keeping Americans safe. Drone strikes, non-criminal detention, and massive surveillance policies have all had collateral damage and unintended consequences. But none of these policies were ever designed to harm vulnerable, innocent people.
President Trump’s executive order is deeply troubling, because it inflicts suffering on “the least of these” for political gain. This demeans the office of the president and robs the United States of its moral high ground in the War on Terror.
A Missed Opportunity
It is a president’s job to manage diplomatic and political relationships in ways that both promote our national interests and share the burden of global responsibilities. A sensible refugee policy will balance two competing realities: first, it is a moral duty for a wealthy country like the United States to help displaced and suffering people; and second, not everyone who wants to immigrate to the United States can come to live here.
The United States desperately needs an open and honest debate about its refugee policies, but President Trump’s behavior will make those conversations virtually impossible. Any policies he proposes over the next four years will be immediately dismissed as racist and Islamophobic, and with good reason.
Imagine how different things could have been. The new president could have spent November and December studying our immigration and refugee policies with our foreign allies and with experts in international law, national security, and foreign policy.
Our new president could have rolled out an alternative to our current immigration policies that would affirm our commitments to those who are religiously persecuted and to refugees from Southern Africa and from Southeast Asia, who have a history of integrating well into American life. Perhaps he could have presented a plan to find a more congenial home for Somali refugees, who have a poor record of acculturating in Western environments. The United States and Europe could commit to contributing to the costs of such relocations.
Perhaps also he could have announced a plan for Saudi Arabia to play a greater role in hosting and relocating Syrian refugees, who speak Arabic and practice Sunni Islam. He could have announced an extra layer of vetting for the 60,000 refugees who have already obtained security clearance. He could also have announced that current visa holders from dangerous parts of the globe would be subject to additional scrutiny.
All these measures would have been constitutional, and they would have enjoyed bipartisan support. They would have presented the new president as a compassionate and wise global leader who has a realistic view of America’s limitations. The president would have taken the moral high ground away from those who want to open our borders to refugees on a massive scale.
Unfortunately, our new president has proven incapable of leading a wise and judicious discussion on this sensitive issue. Instead, his policies threaten to diminish America’s standing in the world and taint his new administration with the odor of casual cruelty.
Some of the material in this essay was posted on The Federalist on February 14.