Thursday, February 2, 2017

Why Trump's Refugee and Travel Ban Is Downright Pointless and Possibly Harmful

President Trump has been making waves since sworn in office, particularly through his plethora of executive orders. One executive order was unacceptable enough for a number of Americans where there were protests throughout the United States. That executive order was with regards to banning refugees. This executive order, entitled "Protecting the National from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States," has three main features: 1) indefinitely banning Syrian refugees from entering the United States (exemption created for religious minorities, e.g., Christians), 2) banning all refugees for at least 120 days, and 3) most significantly, banning all immigration for seven Muslim-majority countries for at least 90 days: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. The figure below is from a Washington Post article on who all is affected.

It is not a Muslim ban in the sense that it is blocking citizens from all Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States (over 40 Muslim-majority nations are not covered), and it's why I won't refer to the executive order as a "Muslim ban."  Aside from the fact that Trump called for a Muslim ban as a campaign promise and still called for one after the election, there is still the concern that Trump asked top adviser Rudy Giuliani how to go about a Muslim ban legally, and part of his response was to make it about danger, instead of religion. While the ban does not cover the vast majority of Muslims, the intent of a "Muslim ban" is still in play because Trump is trying to achieve it within the current boundaries of the law.

I would like to mention that it would hardly be unique for the United States to ban individuals with certain passports. As the Economist illustrates, Henley and Partners has a ranking of passport visa restrictions for each country. Many of the seven Muslim-majority countries in the executive order at the bottom of this ranking. While this list only includes those visiting with a passport or visa, the United States would not be unique in not allowing visitors or citizens from these countries to enter the country.

Another point worth addressing is that Trump is trying to justify the executive order by saying that his policy is similar to what Obama did in 2011. As Politifact points out, that is not the case. One of the major differences in Trump's ban and that of Obama's is that the people included in the ban from the Muslim-majority countries include both 500,000 individuals with green cards (at least initially...they're now assessed on a case-by-case basis. In either case, going after those with green cards was a poor life choice), as well as those with dual citizenship in those countries. Second, Trump has provided zero evidence that he is responding to any specific event, whereas Obama was at least responding to a foiled terrorist attack. Third, the travelers from the seven Muslim countries were only revoked of certain travel privileges under Obama, as opposed to Trump downright blocking travel and immigration. Finally, Obama never said that the seven countries are terrorist threats.

With these nuances aside, I would like to touch upon whether indefinitely banning Syrians or invoking a ban on the seven Muslim-majority countries has merit.

Why Did Trump Select Those Seven Countries?
Part of the executive order is a temporary travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. During his campaign, Trump reacted to the San Bernardino and the Orlando nightclub shootings by saying we need a ban to stop this violence. For Trump, perhaps it's because these seven countries are the same ones that Obama had selected for the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, which gives a sense of continuity from the last administration's policy. Three of the countries are even designated as State Sponsors of Terrorism by the State Department. Plus, I'm sure that for proponents of this ban, they will naturally argue that it is only targeting dangerous nations, and the fact that all those nations are Muslim is incidental, as well as secondary to the national security concerns.

However, if Trump is reacting to past terrorist attacks, it doesn't make sense as to why he would select those countries. The San Bernardino attack was perpetrated by an American citizen of Pakistani descent and his Pakistani-American wife. The Orlando gay nightclub shooting was done by an American of Afghani descent. Muhammad Youssef Abulazeez, the perpetrator in the 2015 Chattanooga shootings, was a Kuwaiti with Jordanian and Palestinian parents. Even the 9-11 attackers were predominantly Saudi. There have been no lethal post-9-11 terrorist attacks from terrorists coming from the seven countries. As Politifact points out, there were only three cases in which nonlethal, post-9-11 terrorist attacks were carried out by individuals from Somalia and Iran.

Even if you can point out that some of the seven countries are hotspots for terrorists, the terrorists that have been perpetrating attacks on American soil have come from other countries not on Trump's list. Using data from the New America Foundation, the Wall Street Journal points out that 45 percent (or 80 out of 180) of the terrorists perpetrating terrorist attacks post-9-11 are from the United States, and that only 10 out of 180 of these terrorists came from the countries on Trump's list. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are even bigger threats than the countries Trump has been gunning for, and my guess is that political and business ties to the United States (particularly with Saudi Arabia) would explain why certain countries did not make the list. Saying that a given country has a terrorist problem is not the same thing as refugees or other nationals from that country are going to carry out an attack on American soil when they arrive, and the data show that to be the case (more on that below).

Indefinitely Banning Syrian Refugees or Temporarily Banning Any Refugees
Should the Syrian refugee program be indefinitely suspended? Short answer: No. I wrote about banning Syrian refugees a little over a year ago. I concluded that it made no sense to ban Syrian then, and I stand by that assessment. A few facts worth mentioning or re-mentioning regarding banning refugees:
  • Only 25.6 percent of the refugees are males of "military age," i.e., 18 to 59 years of age, which means that it's primarily not "letting in soldiers."  
  • Not only is there a vetting process for refugees, but it is the most stringent of vetting processes, as 2015 testimony to Senate Homeland Security Commission shows. It would be easier for a terrorist to sneak in by using a student visa, business visa, a travel visa, or even cross the U.S.-Mexican border than it is to use refugee status.
  • Using post-9-11 data, the probability that a refugee would be remotely involved with a terrorist organization is about 0.001%.
  • Leaving refugees in refugee camps causes more long-term issues than finding them a new country. Additionally, allowing Syrian refugees has real potential to help America's economy. Remember when all those refugees came to America in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century to make America even greater? Same idea here.

Refugees as a Threat to National Security
There is another factor that makes me wonder about how much his executive order is going to actually help with national security, and it is assessing the threat of refugees to national security. From 1975 to 2015, there have only been 20 refugees that attempted or committed terrorist acts on U.S. soil. From those attacks, there have only been three Americans killed on American soil, and that was back in the 1970s. Since 1975 (see Global Terrorism Database for yourself), there have been zero American deaths on American soil at the hands of foreign terrorists from the seven countries Trump selected. Even including 9-11 into the math, a 2016 Cato Institute policy analysis shows that the odds of an American being killed by an immigrant terrorist on American soil is one in 3.64 billion! The odds of getting struck by lighting are 1 in 174,226, which means that you are about 21,000 times more likely to get struck by lighting than get killed by a refugee while on American soil. What this means is that Trump is making a huge deal out of a virtually nonexistent problem, which makes it all the more nonsensical given the scrutiny refugees undergo during the vetting process.

Postscript: Good national security policy entails making sure that costs are kept at a minimum and that the benefit would be huge. In this case, it's reverse, the benefit is minimal (if existing at all) and the cost is great, not just to our budget, but also to the integrity of what this nation stands for. Going back to the previously mentioned Cato Institute analysis on Terrorism and Immigration, there are threats to national security, but based on the data, they don't merit anything like banning refugees or arbitrarily halting travel or immigration from the countries Trump has selected.

Much like with Trump's idea to build a concrete wall, Trump has fixated on a simplistic, yet ineffective idea to maintain this country's national security (see this wonderful analysis by Right-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies report on how poorly written and targeted this executive order is). On top of all that I previously mentioned, the executive order has a few other unintended consequences: it gives off the impression that America is too weak to handle a small handful of refugees, it puts strain on U.S.-Iraqi relations (remember that global intelligence campaigns against terrorists involve allies), and it sends the message that the American government does not like Muslims, which will only fuel ISIS' rage. Refugees also undermine ISIS by letting the world know just how bad they really are (Refugees also have intel on ISIS) and also deprives ISIS of funding vis-à-vis taxation and extortion, so why lose an advantage in fighting ISIS by pushing refugees away? Additionally, this executive order will probably erode trust between local law enforcement and Muslim communities, which, as FBI Director James Coney points out, is vital for counterterrorism efforts. This point about trust is all the important to remember since nearly half of post-9-11 attacks were perpetrated by American citizens.

This brings me to my final point: rather than alienating liberal, moderate, or non-practicing Muslims, we need policy that brings us as a people closer together. Remember that citizens of Cuba and the Soviet Union were fleeing their home country because of the oppression. I can tell you that being from those parts of the world did not mean that they were Communist. A similar argument can be used for Iranians fleeing the Ayatollah last century, and it can be applied here. So many of the Syrians are fleeing oppression and want a better way of life. Rather than shut out those in need, we should show the world how great America really is. It is easier for these terrorist groups to indoctrinate Muslims already in the United States than it is to try to sneak people into the country, which is why we shouldn't give Muslims reason to succumb to radical Islam. As a matter of fact, allowing for Muslims to immigrate to the United States is one of the more effective ways we have at reducing radical Islam because what better way to change the hearts and minds of Muslims by letting them experience the American way of life, thereby showing it is nowhere near the threat that ISIS and other extremists make it out to be? I'm not asking for open borders (especially with this president), but rather to reassess the situation not only because building bridges typically works better than burning them, but also because it would improve the overall state of our national security.

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