Project Wonderful

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Executive Order – the implications of the refugee and immigration ban

Like me, I am sure you are all sickened by the first week of the Trump administration. While I don't usually delve into too much policy on the blog I was so infuriated by the recent Executive Order on immigration that I didn't want to let the moment pass without saying something. Earlier today I participated in a protest at the White House, but I wanted to do as much as possible with my small platform to share information about why the ban is dangerous and discriminatory. Thank you to James Blake, who is way more expert at this than I am, for obliging and for my grad school classmate who connected me with him. His bio and analysis are below. By the way, if you are interested in joining a protest against the so-called Muslim Ban, click here to find out what is happening in your city. There are still plenty of activities going on.

On Friday, January 27, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a wide-ranging Executive Order that ended the refugee resettlement program temporarily for four months, in addition to banning entry of people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. The order cuts in half the number of refugees planned to be taken in during 2017. Priority will also be given to certain religions.

Controversy has ensued. The Executive Order has drawn significant criticism from a wide range of groups. At the diplomatic level, several policy makers have questioned whether it goes against the Geneva Convention, while many other argue that it undermines U.S. world leadership. Because of the rushed nature of the Executive Order, confusion and anger has spread. Some politicians, academics, medical professionals, former interpreters to the U.S. government and athletes are caught up in the blanket-nature of the Executive Order, and are uncertain whether they can travel back to the U.S. Yesterday, amid media reports of chaos at airports, a federal judge ruled that the authorities had to stop deporting refugees and others who were stuck at the U.S. airports.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, in the U.S., the reaction has been deeply polarized. The U.S. president tied the Executive Order’s rationale to improving national security, citing 9/11 on several occasions, and stating he wanted to clamp down on security vulnerabilities from the visa system. This will likely be the start of further policies in this area. CNN wrote an article that President Trump’s next step could be to check digital records of those immigrants seeking to enter the country. Some on the political right have praised the Executive Order as a first step in securing borders and protecting the U.S. against terrorism. The political left and center, however, is by and large furious, with the more hardline comments criticizing the president for demagoguery, inciting fear, hatred of marginalized groups and, in fact, undermining national security. Some have equated the president’s ulterior motivation in the Executive Order to be a blanket Muslim ban.

Protests against the Executive Order have been held – and are being planned – in cities across the country. Notably, on Saturday, a spontaneous demonstration was held outside JFK international airport after immigrants attempting to re-enter the U.S. were detained.

In the bigger picture, there are particularly troubling aspects to the Executive Order. The U.S. shapes global thinking through its leadership. For many years, its welcoming position to refugees has been widely recognized, and has set the tone and direction for other countries to welcome, particularly the most vulnerable of refugees from war-torn countries. Among experts, the U.S. refugee program itself is a success story. Those refugees who have been resettled have boosted their communities through innovation, diversity and cultural enrichment. The program itself has a long-tradition: the U.S. is after all at its core a nation of immigrants.

Perhaps even more troubling, the world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Neighbors to Syria, particularly Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are overwhelmed by refugees, who have fled from years of conflict in Syria. Meanwhile, refugees have flooded Europe in recent years, as they desperately seek opportunities to rebuild their lives. The pressing nature of the world refugee crisis is calling for U.S. leadership and solutions, but with the Executive Order, it has seemingly shunned responsibility and instead, shockingly, turned inwards.

In terms of security, while the Executive Order has been couched in matters of national security, it is not apparent what improvements it was trying to make. Refugees were already subject to lengthy and significant investigations by Homeland Security, with cases taking an average 12-18 months of vetting, biometrics and interviews. It is harder to get to the US as a refugee than it is by any other immigration route. The risk of letting in potentially dangerous individuals as refugees was already small.

Indeed, there is a likelihood that the Executive Order will drive increasing security risks over the longer-term, as it plays into the broader narrative of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda of a clash of civilizations with the West. The Executive Order risks aiding the radicalization of marginalized elements from the country to look for reasons to carry out attacks in the U.S. It is also a boon for the recruitment to groups such as the Islamic State.

Given the reaction and implication of the Executive Order, the only real solution seems to be to repeal it, and instead work with the system that was left in place by the Obama administration. In some key positions, such as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, the Trump administration has a wealth of experience to draw upon, and beneath these individuals are many talented security experts. The Trump administration should seek counsel from these experts and consider the Executive Order in more depth.

The US has a proud history of welcoming refugees, and fostering a community of diversity. The Executive Order has caused great confusion, hurt and embarrassment to the U.S., and, sadly has global ramifications.

James Blake is an expert in political and security risk analysis. He started his career at a leading political and security risk consultancy firm in London. He subsequently worked in-house at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, where he advised on international security matters across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Most recently, he was the sole political analyst at the International Rescue Committee. He was in Turkey conducting an assessment on refugees as the European Refugee Crisis escalated, to help with the IRC's programming in Europe. He also helped IRC teams access conflict zones and mitigate their risks as they sought to respond to the world's worst crises. James wrote geopolitical analysis for the Soufan Group for several years, and is a contributor to Jane's Intelligence Magazine.