Statement on Immigration & Refugee Executive Order

by Julia Brooks, Legal Research Associate, Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

Trump Administration’s Immigration and Refugee Order Betrays Humanitarian Values and American Security

The Trump administration’s executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States by immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries – Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – is not only cruel and misguided, but will do nothing to keep America safe. Instead, it will unnecessarily bog down federal bureaucracy and foment hatred of the United States in the name of supposedly defending America against women and children who seek nothing more than survival. This, in turn, will exacerbate the same forces of conflict, disorder and suffering the U.S. has long stood against – for compelling humanitarian, foreign policy and national security reasons.

First, the policy is inhumane. It violates core American and humanitarian values.

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants and refugees, long a beacon of liberty and safe harbor to the world. Now is not the time to turn our backs on this legacy. From Syrian and Iraqi families fleeing ISIS-inflicted terror or Assad’s barrel bombs to Somalis fleeing al Shabaab violence, they do not migrate out of choice, but to escape from the same violence, persecution and terror the U.S. has dedicated its armed forces, security services and diplomatic assets to combat. As the Administration’s order is being chaotically implemented, those fleeing stated enemies of the United States are already finding that our government is the most callous to their needs.

In fact, refugee admissions to the U.S. account for an incredibly small proportion of the world’s displaced. War and persecution have driven a record of over 65 million people from their homes around the world. According to the UN Refugee Agency, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee; and 51% of them are children. Far from being overburdened, the U.S. hosted only around 267,000 refugees as of last year, ranking it 75th worldwide in refugees per capita; the U.S. admitted around 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016.

Furthermore, as one of the world’s largest, wealthiest and most powerful countries, the U.S. has long been, and should remain, a leader in promoting human rights and humanitarian norms around the globe. This leadership role was instrumental in creating the international laws and institutions that emerged from the carnage of the Second World War. This includes the universal obligations of states to protect refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The new administration’s sudden callousness towards refugees is not only a violation of American values, but of its obligations to humanity.

Second, the policy will not make us safer, but will detract from real national security measures that could.

While a variety of groups and individuals pose a distinct threat to the U.S., refugees are not among them. Despite the new administration’s rhetoric, there is little evidence linking refugees to terrorist attacks in the U.S. According to former State Department spokesman John Kirby, “only about a dozen” of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program since 9/11 “have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S. None of them were Syrian.” Rather, recent attacks in the U.S. and Europe, from Paris and Brussels to Orlando to San Bernardino to Boston, have been carried out by homegrown terrorists and not recent immigrants or refugees, with few exceptions. The number of fatal terror attacks carried out by refugees in the U.S? Zero. The number of fatal terror attacks carried out by nationals of these seven countries in the U.S.? Zero.

The Administration’s executive order bans refugees until stricter vetting is in place. Yet according to U.S. officials, refugees already undergo a more stringent security screening process than any other category of traveler to the United States. First, refugees are identified and screened by the UN Refugee Agency, which refers less than 1% of the global refugee population for resettlement. Those refugees referred to the U.S. are then screened by multiple national security agencies over a period of nearly two years before being granted admission to the U.S.

The national security justification provided thus misidentifies the potential threat posed to the U.S. by refugees from these seven Muslim-majority countries (notably excluding countries with which Trump has business ties, as well as Christian minorities in those countries) while neglecting to address much more serious threats to national security from domestic and foreign nationals alike. Defending the order, White House spokesman Sean Spicer stressed that it would only restrict “people from a country that has a propensity to do us harm.” Yet on 9/11, in the most devastating attack on US soil, as invoked by the executive order, not a single one of the attackers – Saudi, Emirati, Jordanian and Egyptian – would have been prevented from entering the U.S. by a policy such as this.

As the Administration moves to slash federal budgets and regulations, this redundant and ineffective security theater will do nothing to keep our country safe. It has however, already imposed a real human cost at home and abroad – ranging from the detention of children and the elderly to the denial of travel for refugees to receive life-saving medical care.

Finally, the policy is misguided.

By discriminating against refugees and immigrants en masse on the basis of nationality (and Muslim religion) alone, the policy flies in the face of both U.S. and international law. As many in the U.S. and the international community lament the administration’s flagrant disregard for these fundamental obligations, it is imperative to reassert to our global commitments – not just because helping families to flee violence and persecution is the law, but also because it is good foreign policy.

Restricting Muslim refugees from entering the U.S. will not make us safer; rather, it is tantamount to handing terrorists groups a strategic victory. Policies that target entire nations and religions not only violate U.S. and international law, but also feed into the same false narratives that ISIS and our other opponents seek to advance: that there is a war between Islam and the West; that America is at war with Islam.

Creating distrust and fear amongst the broader Muslim population will also hinder the government’s ability to investigate and prosecute crimes of terrorism, and most importantly, will make it more difficult to stop terrorist planning cells.

This policy is inhumane, ineffective and misguided. It betrays our national security and our fundamental humanitarian and American values, while exacerbating the same forces of conflict and instability that the U.S. seeks to combat. We owe it to ourselves to resist such ill-founded and xenophobic policy, and to call upon our government to rescind it. We can and must do better. 

Julia Brooks

Julia Brooks is a Legal Research Associate at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), where she focuses on international humanitarian law, policy and education. For the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA), she serves as host and producer of the Humanitarian Assistance Podcast series; a researcher focusing on international humanitarian law and humanitarian protection; and a managing editor and contributor to the ATHA blog and paper series. She also contributes as a writer, teaching fellow and consultant to curriculum development for e-learning tools, online and in-person courses developed by the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard.