By Keith Welch
On Friday, Donald Trump signed an executive order that bans the arrival of Syrian refugees, suspends refugee resettlement for 120 days and reduces the number of refugees who will enter the country from 110,000 to 50,000. The order also bans travel from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Sudan and Libya for 90 days. Early Saturday we learned that this ban also included legal permanent residents and visa holders, an interpretation which led to the inhumane and illegal detention of families, students, and former interpreters for the US Military. These actions are fundamentally un-American and put thousands of lives in grave danger.
While working at a refugee resettlement agency in Washington State, I had the honor of working closely with a former Iraqi interpreter for the US Military. He shared with me letters he had received from members of his unit. The letters spoke of a man who had risked his own life for the US and of a man who had saved the lives of others. Now, the Trump Administration is slamming the door on interpreters like him. Is this how we treat our war heroes?
We cannot predict the ultimate consequences of this executive order. Legal scholars have criticized the “astonishing incompetence of its drafting and construction,” which has opened up the Administration to numerous legal challenges. Federal courts across the country ruled Saturday that the Administration cannot deport visa holders or legal permanent residents who are returning to the US. Analysts have argued that the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries is illegal.
Regardless of the outcome of these cases, this order is unlikely to make the US safer and will likely put the country at risk. First, refugees are not a likely terrorist threat. Of the 784,000 refugees that the US has resettled since September 11, 2001, only three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—two of whom were not planning an attack in the US. Second, a study by MI5’s behavioral science unit found little to no connection between religiosity and extremism. They found that many terrorists are religious novices and that a strong religious identity actually protects against radicalization. In fact, restricting US refugee resettlement could further destabilize the Middle East where 2.6 million refugees reside in Turkey and 20% of Lebanon’s population is now Syrian refugees. A destabilized region could lead to additional humanitarian crises and security risks.
This executive order could lead to the collapse of the international community’s system for protecting refugees. The global need for refugee resettlement is at a historically high level. The United Nations stated last year that more people have been forced from their homes because of war, persecution, or natural disaster than at any other time in history. However, internal pressures are mounting on European countries to limit their intake of refugees, particularly in Germany. Meanwhile, developing countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, which host over 85% of the world’s refugees, are struggling to provide basic services to the constant inflow of people. If the US abandons its commitment to refugee protection, these countries will likely follow suit.
Now, more than ever, is a time to reaffirm why we welcome refugees to our country. Following WWII the US admitted 250,000 Europeans who had been displaced during the war. Congress then quickly passed legislation allowing for an additional 400,000 people. Americans witnessed immense suffering during the war and responded collectively by choosing to provide a safe haven to people whose lives were at risk because of their religious beliefs, ethnicity, or because they happened to live in the middle of a war zone. This legislation cemented the US’s commitment to providing protection to refugees. Since then, our country has played a vital leadership role in encouraging the international community to provide additional protections.
Together we must now decide. We continue to witness horrific scenes in places like Syria. Do we want the US to slam the door on people because of unfounded fears about their religion? Or will we fight for a country that leads the international community in protecting the world’s most vulnerable?
Keith Welch is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and former Employment Specialist at a refugee resettlement agency in Washington State.