President Donald Trump sought to settle legal and political concerns Monday with his revised executive order pausing travel from six countries plagued by terrorism—and temporarily keeping out all refugees.
While the order contains notable revisions—including removing restrictions on Iraq, a crucial counterterrorism partner, and applying restrictions only to prospective new travelers—its intent remains the same.
“The executive order allows for the proper review and establishment of standards to prevent terrorist or criminal infiltration by foreign nationals,” the first sentence reads.
In making the case for the policy, the revised order contains a clause noting about 300 pending FBI counterterror investigations involve individuals who came to the U.S. as refugees.
Government officials declined to say how many of the 300 are from the six countries targeted in the order, or how many are currently refugees or simply were refugees at one time. The administration also did not say whether any of the 300 actually have been charged with a crime.
“As threats to our security continue to evolve and change, common sense dictates we continually re-evaluate and reassess the system we rely upon to protect our country,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a Monday press conference announcing the revised order, where he was joined by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and John Kelly, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
“While no system can be made completely infallible,” Tillerson said, “the American people can have high confidence we are identifying ways to improve the vetting process and keep terrorists from entering our country.”
National security and diplomatic experts credit the Trump administration for changes, but some continue to question the target of the order—foreign nationals from countries already deemed terror threats by the Obama administration and Congress—at a time when recent terrorist attacks against the U.S. have been perpetrated by American citizens or legal residents.
“The Trump administration has taken out all of the things that caused courts to object, which is good news,” said James Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.
“There is nothing illegal or objectionable about it. But the substance of the policy is small potatoes either way,” Jeffrey, who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added in an interview with The Daily Signal. “There is not much to get excited about and not much in here that will make America safer.”
‘Big Step Forward’
The new order addresses many of the concerns that followed Trump’s announcement of the original directive five weeks ago. Federal courts froze that order, which resulted in confusion and chaos at airports. Critics said it targeted Muslims.
As the administration evaluates how to enhance vetting procedures, Trump’s new order bars for 90 days the issuance of new visas for citizens and residents of six countries. It also pauses for 120 days resettlement to the U.S. of refugees from anywhere in the world.
Syrian refugees no longer are subject to an indefinite ban, as they were in Trump’s first order.
The 90-day travel restriction applies to Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, six Muslim-majority and terrorism-prone countries that were contained in the original order.
Jeffrey, like other experts, lauded the Trump administration for removing Iraq from this list, saying doing so “makes a hell of a lot of sense” because Baghdad has a functioning government that is allied with the U.S. to fight the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS.
“The deletion of Iraq is a big step forward,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, in an email to The Daily Signal. “Of the remaining governments, most are adversarial, nonexistent/weak, or at best lukewarm in their willingness to work with the United States.”
“Thus there is a certain logic in the list—even if I consider the need for such a list unpersuasive, given where most attacks have originated in the past and given our existing rigorous vetting practices,” O’Hanlon said.
Treating Visa Holders Fairly
When the government lifts the suspension on refugees, the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. will be capped at 50,000 for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. More than 37,000 refugees who count toward the new quota already have arrived. The U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees in fiscal year 2016, the most since 1999.
The new order takes effect March 16, and does not apply to individuals from the six countries who had valid visas at 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 27. In addition, travelers who hold valid visas and are in transit still will be allowed to enter the U.S.
The order also provides other exceptions not contained in the initial order for travelers from the six countries who are legal permanent residents of the United States, dual nationals who use a passport from another country, and individuals who already have been granted asylum or refugee status.
“This revision makes clear that the focus of the order is on dealing with the emerging threat of foreign fighters coming out of the region to the U.S. rather than punishing or ostracizing Muslim peoples,” said James Carafano, a national security expert at The Heritage Foundation.
“It is also notable how the administration has gone out of its way to accommodate current visa holders to ensure they are treated fairly and not penalized by a plan that focused on future threats,” Carafano said.
Facing Complex Challenges
Critics of Trump’s order counter that none of the recent terrorist attacks in the U.S.—from San Bernardino to Orlando—were perpetrated by anyone from the nations listed in the travel ban. Nationals from the countries targeted have killed no one on American soil.
A recent Department of Homeland Security report found that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.”
The Trump administration has fought the findings of that report, which was cited in recent media accounts. The administration argues it was misleading and excluded classified information that would show a more dangerous threat.
“When you look at the six countries subject to the travel ban, they are either amidst a civil war or a state sponsor of terrorism,” Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department, said in an interview with The Daily Signal.
“From a logical standpoint, it would make sense to have greater scrutiny when looking at immigrants or visitors from these countries,” added Schanzer, who is currently vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “With that said, what we really need is to see an assessment from the intelligence community about those risks, and it’s unclear if we have that here.”
In a briefing with reporters Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the list of six targeted countries could expand if the U.S. government, after reviewing vetting procedures, finds gathering and sharing of information to be unsatisfactory.
‘Crisis Will Continue’
Under the order, the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, Office of National Intelligence, and Justice Department are to develop “uniform screening standards for all immigration programs government-wide.”
Schanzer argued that the United States and other Western countries will continue to confront challenges related to refugee and immigration flows from countries devastated by terrorism unless the U.S. does more to help resolve underlying conflicts.
“We would not be having this flow of refugees and migrants if it were not for several conflicts taking place across the Middle East,” Schanzer said, adding:
We are not trying to solve these conflicts. As long as we are merely managing these conflicts, this crisis will continue. To a certain extent, all of this is a distraction from challenges we face, which boil down to ISIS and the Islamic Republic of Iran wreaking havoc across the Middle East.