Federal courts criticized President Trump for initially failing to demonstrate that his executive order suspending immigration from several majority-Muslim countries was based on a real threat to the country. In his revised order, President Trump was careful to include specific evidence to support the idea that refugees and immigrants from these countries pose a threat to the United States and that banning immigration temporarily to review vetting procedures is therefore justified.
Yet the president’s evidence, laid out in a single paragraph in the order, is so exceptionally weak that it exposes his security defense as little more than a fig-leaf to cover his blanket discrimination.
The executive order states:
Recent history shows that some of those who have entered the United States through our immigration system have proved to be threats to our national security.
This vague language provides no estimate of the level of the threat. The Cato Institute’s recent paper on immigration and terrorism risk does estimate that level: a U.S. resident had a 1 in 3.61 million chance of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist from 1975 to 2015. For comparison, a person had a 1 in 14 thousand chance of being killed in a regular homicide. There is simply no evidence of intolerable terrorism risk from the immigration system generally or from these countries in particular. No person from the six banned countries has killed any U.S. resident in a terrorist attack during those years.
Moreover, two Department of Homeland Security assessments have also rejected the argument that certain countries pose a unique threat to national security. The first stated that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity” because, of the 82 foreign-born individuals who died in pursuit of or were convicted of any terrorism-related offense, “more than half were native-born United States citizens. Of the foreign-born individuals, they came from 26 different countries.” The second assessment concluded that “most foreign-born, U.S.-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry,” meaning increased vetting would have no impact.
The executive order states:
Since 2001, hundreds of persons born abroad have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the United States.
“Terrorism-related” includes any crime that begins with a terrorism investigation. As my colleague Alex Nowrasteh has described, less than half of the 488 cases of foreign-born people with “terrorism-related” convictions—in a list published by Attorney General Jeff Sessions—were actually convicted of a terrorism offense. Mr. Sessions even included thieves who stole a couple of trucks of cereal. Moreover, only 8 percent of the foreign-born residents with terrorism-related convictions (40 people total) actually planned a terrorist attack inside the United States.
But surely these 40 individuals were so dangerous that it makes sense to shut down our immigration system from these places for a while. The executive order provides two examples to attempt to highlight the danger:
… in January 2013, two Iraqi nationals admitted to the United States as refugees in 2009 were sentenced to 40 years and to life in prison, respectively, for multiple terrorism-related offenses.
My colleague Alex Nowrasteh reviewed this case yesterday—two Iraqi interpreters who attempted to send weapons to Iraq to aid insurgents there. First, they were not planning an attack here, and second, even if they were, this new order specifically exempts those who worked for the U.S. government, so this order would not apply to them. Third, President Obama instituted new vetting procedures that would have caught them anyway. If the goal was to frighten the public, this is about the worst case to cite.
The executive order also provides this example:
… in October 2014, a native of Somalia who had been brought to the United States as a child refugee and later became a naturalized United States citizen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction as part of a plot to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.
As I wrote yesterday, the use of this case about a child who came to the United States as a two-year-old thoroughly undermines the argument that this ban is about vetting. This was a failure of assimilation, not vetting. No review of screening procedures will prevent a similar situation. In any case, the would-be bomber never actually had any real explosives. The threat was so remote that the FBI agents were laughing when they arrested him as he was trying to detonate their fake bomb. The FBI called him a “confused college kid that talks mildly radical jihad out one ear, and drugs, sex, drinking out the other.”
The executive order states:
The Attorney General has reported to me that more than 300 persons who entered the United States as refugees are currently the subjects of counterterrorism investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
As I explained in a post yesterday, 99.7 percent of all FBI terrorism investigations end without a terrorism conviction, and 99.95 percent of all FBI investigations end without a terrorism conviction of a person who was attempting to carry out terrorism against the United States. These statistics predict that only 1 in 300 of these investigations will turn into a terrorism conviction and that it will not involve a domestic terror plot.
In any case, these 300 represent less than 0.1 percent of all refugees admitted since 1975. As the Cato Institute’s recent report found, only 20 refugees have planned, attempted, or carried out a terrorist attack in the United States from 1975 to 2015. Only three killed anyone, and all were before 1980. During those years, the annual risk of death to a U.S. resident by a refugee terrorist in the country is 1 in 3.64 billion. The United States is not being threatened by refugees.