By Omeed Alerasool and Elissa Miller
On March 6, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13780 banning travel from six Muslim-majority countries. The order revoked and replaced a previous order whose chaotic implementation after its issuance on January 27 included the refusal of legal residents at the border, separation of families, protests at major airports, and several federal court challenges.
While the new travel ban promises a “smoother” implementation, notably removing Iraq from the list of targeted nations and explicitly exempting legal US residents and current visa holders, it still suspends refugee admissions and bans the entry of foreign nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Ultimately, the new ban reflects the same ideas and objectives behind the original executive order.
In the subsequent paragraphs, several major arguments in support of the travel ban are presented, and promptly countered.
Argument 1: The executive orders make America safer. The travel ban will prevent would-be terrorists from entering the United States by suspending refugee admittance and immigration.
This argument is wrong.
Counter: Between 1975 and 2015, zero US deaths resulted from terrorist attacks by individuals from the seven countries included in the original executive order. Moreover, while Trump-appointed Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly notably supports the ban, a recent internal report by the Department of Homeland Security found that individuals from these countries do not pose an increased terrorism risk to the United States and that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” President Trump has also repeatedly referred to the 9/11 attacks in discussing a travel ban. However, none of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from any of the countries affected by the ban.
Rather than protect Americans, these executive orders contribute to extremist jihadist propaganda. Jihadist groups praised the first travel ban as it confirmed their belief that the United States is “at war” with Islam. While some have disputed whether such a policy will contribute to the recruitment of groups like ISIL, the travel ban does threaten to create a dangerous “us versus them” mentality that could damage US interests. According to ISIL’s ideology, Islam and the West are at war, and the terrorist group’s ability to export terrorism globally by promoting this concept is critical for its external operations network. The potential marginalizing effects of the travel ban could be a boon for jihadi recruitment. Ultimately, the executive orders will not make Americans safer; rather, they have the potential to alienate moderates and strengthen existing extremists.
Lastly, the United States maintains a strict vetting process and places significant controls on who enters the country. The difficulty for individuals from these countries to enter into the United States is already considerable. Unlike Europe, the United States does not face a massive influx of refugees on its shores from nearby states. Italy, for example, is currently grappling with a significant refugee crisis as the country has become a key destination for refugees from Africa through Libya – over 181,000 people arrived in Italy by sea in 2016. The United States faces no such equivalent challenge.
Argument 2: The selected countries either harbor or directly support terrorism. They are sending bad people into our country.
This argument is a distraction.
Counter: It applies a guilt by association mentality to citizens of these countries. Whether or not the governments of the countries on the list support terrorism, which is itself a complicated claim, this ban affects students, immigrants, and refugees. It is these populations– many of which are the victims of terrorism – that are directly impacted by the travel ban, not the governments of these countries. The effectiveness of restricting these groups of people is unclear if the one of the aims of the travel ban is to target governments engaged in terrorist activities. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the students, immigrants, and refugees coming from these countries are being directed by their governments for nefarious purposes.
Argument 3: The administration’s action is not legally a Muslim ban, and should not be criticized as such. The first executive order did not mention Islam or Muslims, and the second describes conditions in the targeted countries to justify their selection.
Trump ally Rudy Giuliani told Fox News following the release of the first order that it is “not based on religion. It’s based on places where there are substantial evidence that people are sending terrorists into our country.”
This argument is misleading.
Counter: In the same interview, Giuliani told Fox News that he was asked to help prepare a legal “Muslim ban.” The first executive action also created exceptions for religious minorities, meaning the only people affected from these Muslim-majority countries were Muslims. In December 2015, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who reportedly played a major role in designing and rolling out the travel bans, has expressed beliefs that the United States is entering a “global war with Islamic fascism” – a belief which ironically echoes ISIL’s own rhetoric of a war with the West.
Argument 4: Former President Barack Obama selected the seven countries affected by the first executive order when the Visa Waiver Program was reformed in 2015. President Trump only took Obama’s policy to its logical conclusion.
This argument is wrong.
Counter: Obama did not select the seven countries or initiate restrictions on the entry of nationals from these countries to the United States. In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, a Republican-controlled Congress introduced HR 158, which revised the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that allows many nationals from allied countries to travel to the United States without a visa. Under the act, nationals of VWP countries that had visited, or are dual citizens of, Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan were no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the WVP. The list was soon expanded to include Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. HR 158 was later attached to a “must pass” spending bill. This controversial bill did not actually ban entry of individuals from these seven countries to the United States, however, it applied stricter travel regulations.
A related argument that was made by proponents of the travel ban following the issuance of the first executive order is that Obama “banned” travel from Iraq in 2011. However, the policies implemented in 2011 did not ban new visa applications. Rather, they focused on strengthening screening measures.
Argument 5: Iran is a dangerous adversary that has intervened in the other selected countries. The United States must contain Iran.
This argument is misleading.
Counter: This is a distracting argument made by commentators – Iran is only one of several countries listed in the travel ban. It is important not to conflate Iran with jihadist Sunni groups. In fact, Iran is bitter enemies with groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL and is actively fighting against them on several fronts.
Iran is a player in the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, however the country has essentially no influence in Libya, Sudan, or Somalia. Iran and the United States are indeed geopolitical rivals. Yet, if the goal of the travel ban is to geopolitically contain Iran, it is unclear how banning Somalis, for example, from visiting the United States does so. The United States has shown no hesitation in confronting Iran in the past through more direct means (e.g. harsh sanctions). If these executive orders are aimed at countering Iran, they seem an ineffective avenue to do so.
Banning individuals is distinctly different from confronting a government. It is also worth noting that Iranians already undergo significant additional vetting procedures. Since there are no US Consulates or Embassy in Iran, Iranians must travel to another country in order to apply for visas to the United States and undergo screening by the third-party government in the process.
Argument 6: Many Muslim countries ban Israeli Jews from entry. Outrage over the administration’s executive orders is hypocritical given the lack of outrage directed at these restrictions.
This argument is a distraction.
Counter: This argument does not advocate for the ban. Rather it is directed at critics of the ban. Six of the seven countries included in the first executive order – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen - ban Israeli Jews from entry. While such discriminatory bans should be condemned, the issue here is not the policies of certain Muslim countries, but that Trump’s travel ban risks violating core American values and principles. American citizens have far greater ability to impact their government’s actions than the policies of foreign regimes – and it is not hypocritical for Americans to hold their country, a historic icon of liberal democracy, to a higher standard.
The United States is the vanguard of democratic values and self-proclaimed example of freedom and liberty for the countries of the world. Policies that discriminate, alienate, or villainize individuals based on their national origin or religion violate these principles. They call into question the United States’ moral leadership and the American dream itself. While ensuring the safety of the American people is of utmost importance, these executive orders risk sacrificing American values for a false sense of security. Such policies should be condemned by patriots on both sides of the aisle.
Omeed Alerasool is the Director and Managing Editor of the Fellowship Program at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He earned his BA in economics and international studies from Boston College.
Elissa Miller is an Assistant Managing Editor of the Fellowship Program at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She earned her BA in international relations from Tufts University.
The views expressed herein are the views and opinions of the authors and do not reflect or represent the views of any of the organizations with which the authors are affiliated.