On Travel Bans, Immigration and Executive Orders…

The biggest news item of the last week-probably even overshadowing President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee-is the President’s executive order on travel to the US by certain foreign nationals. The topic has certainly a lot of passion around it and so I want to share some thoughts.

Firstly, if you are someone who thinks that anyone who believes we need to tighten our immigration laws is a xenophobic bigot or racist, there is no need to read further-this column isn’t for you. If you are someone who thinks that anyone that has concerns over President Trump’s executive orders on immigration is trying to destroy the country from the inside and doesn’t care about terrorism, this isn’t for you, either.

Below I have tried to put some thoughts on paper about a topic upon which I am pulled in several ways and directions. It is somewhat lengthy, in large part because it is nuanced and not a blanket rant that paints a broad brush without understanding that the topic is complex. I have to admit to being somewhat outside of the black and white opinions that seem to exist on this topic. I have sought out opinions from those who I know normally have different perspectives just so that I can better understand the issues and concerns at hand. However, I will admit that has been difficult as the issue generates such intense passion. And in talking to a friend who is a political commentator, he has found similar experiences

There will probably be few that will agree and I’ll disappoint many people I know of various political stripes. I’m ok with that but the reason I think that will be the case is disturbing to me. We are increasingly becoming a group of people who are so emotionally charged about our political opinions that we lose most rational thought. Some are just blatantly stupid, frankly, and are just a rant of one-liners that have become the mindless diatribes that accounts for public debate these days. And be clear, that comes from both sides of the political spectrum. That is a topic for another discussion but suffice it to say it is particularly so on this issue, for some reason.

With that long introduction, let’s first share what the order says. The order has these main points:

  • Bans nationals of seven countries—Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Iraq- from entering the US for at least the next 90 days (these countries were named in a 2016 law, passed prior to President Trump taking office, concerning immigration visas as “countries of concern”)
  • Stops admission of all refugees to the US for four months
  • Bans Syrian nationals from entering the US for an indefinite period
  • Orders a review of the program that exempts certain people seeking Visas from an in person interview
  • Gives priority status to members of any persecuted group which is a minority in the country of origin (in other words, priority is given to groups that are subject to genocide in their home country)
  • Directs completion and implementation of a biometric screening criteria for non-US nationals entering and leaving the US

So that is the basis for the large disagreements and will be the basis for Thinking Man’s comments.

First, I think there is large agreement that the order was not well thought out and even more poorly implemented. Gov. Chris Christie, who campaigned extensively for Trump, was even strongly critical of the order as it was implemented and carried out. The order did not allow for people who already had green cards and were legal residents of the US, for example.  In an extreme example, you had individuals from Iraq, that were traveling and were detained who had actually worked with the US as interpreters, local employees in their home country and had put themselves and their families at risk by doing so. The order allows for them to be exempted after review, but I think everyone could agree that more thought on implementation would have not had them detained at all. There were a number of other things about the order that were not done well but the example illustrates the point without straying from the broader salient points of the issue.

So what are the problems about the order itself? First of all, let’s dismiss some of the silliness. I had seen a meme going around—which I realize isn’t real political discussion but it was shared by people who I normally respect as thoughtful. The ‘talking point’ was that Trump only banned travel from countries where he didn’t had business. Without being over the top myself, let’s just realize that is just stupid. The countries named have a couple of things in common, and actually the fact that Trump doesn’t have business in any of them may be one. But I would imagine that very few US businesses have investments in those countries or if they do, they are very limited. With the exception of Iran, which I think almost all people would agree is a terrorist state, all of those countries are in the midst of civil wars. Every one of them has no government that is effectively in control of the country and has large armies of rebels that control large swaths on territory. What government does exist in those countries is not functioning in the sense we would think of it, and is not in control of any of the normal functions of a government throughout its own territory.

Prior to Donald Trump becoming President, these were ‘countries of concern’, legally, not because of Trump’s business interests but because they were hotbeds of terrorist activity and because they had no functioning central government they could do anything to combat it.

To the issue itself, the biggest concerns that I have heard about the order center around two primary things: 1) that the order targets Muslims and is a first step toward banning Muslim immigration solely on the basis of their faith and 2) by blocking Syrian nationals, you are putting up a barrier to people fleeing a civil war and a human disaster of cataclysmic proportions, more so since the war has seen the use of chemical weapons against civilian populations by Syrian government forces.

Those seem to be very legitimate concerns. We do not ban people on the basis solely of their religious beliefs and to do so for that reason alone would be clearly involving the government in religion and, if done in any way in the US or with US citizens it would be unconstitutional. No more than I think people should be allowed to tell me where I can travel solely on the basis of my religion, we certainly should not do that to others (although some of the countries mentioned do, in fact, do that but that’s another discussion). And certainly the concern about helping refugees from Syria, which has seen casualties from the civil war in the high tens of thousands and the number of displaced refugees in the hundreds of thousands, is a valid one. And many in Syria are caught between the atrocities of ISIS and the atrocities of Syrian President Assad, who has used chemical weapons on his own people. Are we really to close our doors to anyone trying to get away from that?

But to assume that there is no legitimate concern over Islamic terrorism is to deliberately close your eyes to what’s going on around the world. Now, Islam isn’t the only religion that has had people commit acts of violence and killing, even in the US during our lifetimes. But in recent years, mass killings committed by people who themselves said they were motivated by their Muslim religious beliefs are not only the most common (though ‘common’ is a relative term, I realize) but also increasing. Without even going back to 9/11 and the largest terrorist act in our history, there are a number of recent examples. We need only look at Fort Hood, Chattanooga, Santa Barbara, the nightclub in Orlando, Ohio State, and others and we see it affects us, even if we discount the mass killings in Europe which is often impacted more just because of its geographic proximity to the areas undergoing civil war and growing ISIS cells.

The argument, understandably, is that it is a very small insignificant minority of Muslims who do those things and so to broadly talk about “Islamic terrorism” isn’t right. Is that the case? To be clear and emphatic, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not violent terrorists and we do need to keep that in mind in the same way that you don’t brand me by those who claim to be Christians and bomb abortion clinics, for example.   So let’s try to do something hard to do and look at data and facts.

Pew Research has polled on Muslim attitudes around the world for a number of years. In 2011 Pew polled Muslims in the US, and divided the results into those born in the US and those who were born outside of the US. It found that 14% or about 1 in 6, said that suicide bombings or other acts of violence against civilians are sometimes justified or they aren’t sure if they are justified. The poll was taken before the rise of ISIS, when al Qaeda and Bin Laden were the major international threat. In that same poll, roughly 1 in 5 either had a favorable opinion of al Qaeda or were unsure of their opinion. From that poll, the numbers show a vast minority with views of concern but hardly an insignificant minority. And the totals were higher for those not born in the US. And even higher still for Muslims in other areas of the world, as you can expect.

Focusing on the countries mentioned in Trump’s executive order, let’s use two.   A 2015 ORB International poll found that 22% of Syrians support ISIS and 35% support the equally bad al-Nusra (which is basically the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda). Given that these two organizations have been fighting each other in Syria, that would say that the supporters given are not the same people, meaning that you have to add those percentages together to at least some degree. And in that case, the polls are astonishing. Additionally, we also know that in two cases of terrorist attacks in Europe the accused terrorist came from Syria as refugees fleeing the civil war

Bringing it home to US shores, let’s just look at the examples from 2016. Dahir Adan stabbed nine people in a mall in Minnesota. His father identified him as a Somali who had been born in Kenya. And another Somali involved in mass violence was Abdul Razak Ali Artan, who had immigrated to Ohio and drove his car into a group of students at Ohio State then used a butcher knife to continue his bloodletting, before being shot by campus police. So these are two attacks in the last few months committed by nationals from one of the countries listed in the 2016 law and the executive order.

So while Europe has seen more attacks from terrorist motivated by their Islamic beliefs, the US has certainly seen the effects, and that even doesn’t count the plots that our law enforcement agencies say have been thwarted in NY, LA, MN and elsewhere.

Can we all agree about a few things? One, that we can believe al-Qaeda and ISIS when they ask their followers to travel abroad to commit terrorist acts and that a concern about Islamic terrorism originating especially in countries where there are ongoing civil wars and local governments are powerless to help stop terrorism from being exported, is legitimate? Two, can we agree that we aren’t going to discriminate on the solely on the basis of religion and no one wants to outlaw Islam in the US (though on this point, let’s at least concede the fact that President Trump created his own problems by his loud mouth proposing during the campaign to do almost that). And three, that any compassionate people want to help the human crisis in Syria and the genocide going on there and other places affected by civil war.

The question becomes how to balance these things? From a big picture, the most basic function of government is to protect its citizens and so that should be a top priority. So something has to be done to better keep those we all agree shouldn’t be allowed in, out. But the majority of Syrians, for example, which include Yazidis or Coptic Christians who are being exterminated as a population in that area, aren’t a terrorist threat. And how do we help make them safe and keep them from the absolute atrocities of the sub-human adherents of ISIS and President Assad while also protecting ourselves?

Can we at least collectively take a breath and realize that trying to tighten border restrictions to keep us safe does not mean totally turning our back on others? And can we realize that wanting to help refugees trying to flee atrocities on a scale that we can’t possibly imagine does not mean that we don’t care about letting terrorists into the country?   Frankly, I’m not completely sure what the answer is but I am pretty sure that it isn’t with the emotional fanaticism that often substitutes for rational thought on this topic of late.   The issue is complex, and so will be the solutions.

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