This week President Donald Trump issued a revised Executive Order (EO or Order) restricting immigration from six majority Muslim countries and more than halving the US refugee program. This version includes some significant changes: it is more carefully written; it removes Iraq from the list of countries falling under the ban; and it exempts those with green cards and valid visas. Nevertheless, it remains a false, dangerous, cruel, arbitrary, and bigoted assault on Muslims and the very idea of America as an open, welcoming society.
The EO is based on the false premise that it is designed to protect Americans from foreign terrorists. Arguments to this effect peppered the Order and were used by the three Cabinet Secretaries who spoke after it was issued. Attorney General Sessions, for example, in addition to citing the single case of a naturalized Somali American who was convicted of planning a terrorist attack in 2014, claimed that the FBI is currently investigating 300 refugees for possible terrorist activity (a charge that is included in the EO).
The Somali American case is the only known instance where a former refugee from one of the six countries sought to engage in violence. Given the administration’s penchant for “alternative facts”, the first ever mention of 300 individuals “under investigation” must be taken with a grain of salt until it can independently be verified. In fact, just a few days before the release of the EO, the Department of Homeland Security released a study concluding that immigrants, in general, are not a security threat since most recorded terrorist crimes were committed by individuals who became radicalized after living in the US, and that, in any case, “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity”.
While immigrants and refugees from the six countries included in the ban are not responsible for terrorism in the US, that hasn’t stopped administration spokespersons from using them as scapegoats to justify their proposed policies. The Order, itself, is designed to set up Muslims as a “bogeyman” in order to win support for Trump’s efforts to overhaul of the entire immigration/refugee program. Just as the “bogeyman” of the Mexican rapist and drug dealer was used to justify the Wall and planned mass deportations, Muslim terrorists are being used to validate gutting the refugee program and limiting admission of “undesirables” from North Africa, and Southwest and South Asia.
Some have argued that this is the precursor to President Trump making good on his promise of a general “Muslim ban”. It very well may be, since the EO states that more countries may be added in the future – with an Administration spokesperson suggesting that 13 or 14 countries may soon be included.
Additionally, the EO includes mention of a still undefined ideology test for admittance to the US. Arabs, including US citizens, who have already undergone similar screening by Border Patrol officials, can testify to how insulting and intrusive this process can be. Laptops and phones have been seized and downloaded, and individuals have been asked for their views on the Iraq War, whether they support Israel, their views about the US President, and their religious beliefs. This is a sure-fire way to discriminate against an entire group of people – and, I might add, not just Muslims. So the EO appears to be designed to exclude not “potential terrorists” but individuals who fail to pass an arbitrary ideological litmus test.
Just as insidious as the “temporary ban” and the mechanisms that will be developed to exclude more individuals after it is lifted (if it is lifted and not expanded) is the suspension of the refugee program and the pledge to significantly reduce the number of refugees from all countries being allowed into the US.
From the earliest days of his presidential campaign, when candidate Trump first warned about the dangers of refugees, saying “we don’t know who these people are”, major church-based refugee resettlement groups responded forcefully with evidence demonstrating the thoroughness of the vetting process. The process currently used to screen refugee applicants is already exceptionally rigorous, taking more than two years to complete. But preying on fears of Muslims, Trump has persisted with the lie that refugees are not screened. Now he has issued this EO establishing that his administration after ordering a freeze on refugee admittance for 120 days, will ultimately reduce the number of refugees allowed into the US from 110,000 to 50,000.
This is unconscionable, since those who apply for admission as refugees are desperate souls seeking to escape life-threatening situations. They have risked everything in the hopes of securing safety and opportunity for their families. They are the most vulnerable people on earth and fear mongering at their expense is a cruel and heartless act.
The architects behind all of the administration’s machinations are a small cadre of ultra-nationalist advisers who have argued that America is a white Judeo-Christian culture facing an existential threat from foreigners – specifically Latinos and Muslims. They fear that “their” country and its culture are at risk of being diluted and transformed and that action must be taken to save “America”, as they see it.
On the one hand, they are right. America is changing, as it always has. Where they are wrong is that the very idea of America is found not in exclusion, but in its inclusiveness and its absorptive capacity to become new.
The same xenophobic fear being expressed by the President and his supporters today once prompted others before them to agitate against Jews, Catholics, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and every other wave of new immigrants that came to our shores. It was they who said “Irish need not apply”, passed the notorious Asian Exclusion Act, led the forced immigration detention and deportation of Mexican American citizens, lynched Italians, committed gang violence against Eastern Europeans, supported the internment of Japanese, instigated against Jews, and fought against equal rights for African Americans.
The idea of America is bigger than the one the xenophobes have espoused and so, time and again, they lost. Thank God they did, because what kind of country would we be, had they won?
Not learning the lessons of history, this Administration is trying once again to impose exclusionary policies. They are building a Wall, ordering mass deportations, and issuing a bigoted Executive Order. When all is said and done, it’s not refugees and immigrants, Latinos or Muslims, who pose an existential threat to the American idea. That threat comes from this Administration and its policies.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.