As Jacob Sullum noted this morning, President Trump’s new 90-day ban on travel from six Muslim countries and his suspension of America’s refugee program are in a far stronger position to withstand legal scrutiny than his previous effort. A president has vast discretion in setting immigration enforcement priorities and admitting foreigners so long as he doesn’t run afoul of Constitutional due process protections or injunction against religious discrimination etc.
On its face, Trump’s new travel ban – unlike his last one – meets this criterion. The ACLU is protesting that the ban is still fundamentally rooted not in national security concerns but prejudice and is looking it over for legal challenge. It will have a harder time prevailing in court, but that does not mean it is wrong. Indeed, the order is mere security theater whose intention is to stoke anti-Muslim fear not make America safer.
For starters, as with the old ban that, like the proverbial drunk who looked for his lost car keys under the lamppost where he could see rather than where he lost them, the new ban too goes after countries that are easy targets, not ones that actually have sent terrorists to America (not that it would be OK to have a blanket ban against innocent tourists or students or other travelers from them either). The countries covered by the ban this time include Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Iraq, which was in the original ban, has been dropped from the list because, evidently, the Iraqi government has assured the administration that it has adequate vetting procedures in place. With the exception of Iran, what’s perverse about this list is that it shuts out the victims trying to flee Islamic terrorism. (And in Iran’s case those who want to flee repressive mullahs.)
Indeed, as has been pointed out a gazillion times, these countries may be on America’s list of states having a terrorism problem, but it is not one directed at us. On the whole, even among the handful of Muslim in America who’ve been involved in violent extremism of any kind here or abroad, very few of them have been from these countries and none of these have perpetrated a deadly attack on American soil. According to New America, a think tank compiling information on terrorist activities in the United States since 9/11, 94 people have been killed by jihadists in the past 15 years. But the majority of attackers come from within. The study concluded:
“Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents. Moreover, while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident,” it says. “In addition about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration.” [Emphasis added]
Ironically, the countries that do breed anti-American terrorism such as Saudi Arabia (home of the 9/11 hijackers), Pakistan (San Bernardino shooting duo), Soviet Union (one of the Boston marathon bombers) are conspicuously absent from Trump’s list because it would likely upset the foreign policy establishment too much.
But the ban is not merely misdirected it is also overkill. America did not impose anything this extreme even after 9/11. So what exactly is the need now 17 years and trillions of dollars of spending on homeland security later? Attorney General Jeff Sessions muttered something about 300 refugees being under investigation for terrorism by FBI. But it is unclear what that means. The FBI constantly investigates all kinds of activities, not all of them turn out to be actual threats.
In fact, notes Kristie De Pena, Niskanen Center’s Immigration Counsel, it is impossible to authenticate Sessions claims because, generally, law enforcement records—including FBI records—are exempted from FOIA requests when untimely disclosure would jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations. Furthermore, in the aftermath of 9/11, that exemption was expanded on a number of grounds to protect national security. So, she notes, there is no way of knowing whether these refugees are from these countries or elsewhere or the nature of the activities they were plotting unless the administration itself offers more details.
If it fails to offer credible evidence of credible threats, it’ll be hard to escape the conclusion that the travel ban is simply an exercise in fear mongering. Indeed, not counting Sessions claims, refugees in this country are safer than apple pie.
As I wrote previously, refugees are subjected to such a long, multi-layered and onerous vetting process that it would make more sense for ISIS terrorists to be airdropped by coyotes to gain entry to the country. (I am not saying that this process is fool-roof; nothing can be. I am saying it is involved and fraught enough so as to be useless for prospective terrorists.) Indeed, besides the 2011 indictment of two Iraqi refugees in Bowling Green for providing arms to al-Qaeda, since 1993, only three refugees have turned to terrorism. Trying to reduce these odds to zero before admitting any more refugees would be tantamount to applying the precautionary principle to immigration policy – something that conservatives criticize when liberals use it to justify killing GMOs etc. (Precautionary principle, to put it crudely, means taking no policy action unless it is proven to be 100 percent safe, regardless of the benefits.)
One last thing: The administration is billing this as a temporary ban. But there would be no point in it if it didn’t lead to more stringent permanent travel restrictions. Trump’s first travel ban was a study in chaos and disruption but it served a useful purpose for him in that it softened the country to the horrid stuff that’s he’s now pushing.