President Trump had long promised major restrictions on refugees and visitors from Muslim countries. Now he has entered office, it looks like he is going to make good on his word.
This week, the Trump administration is preparing a draft executive order that would immediately and indefinitely block Syrian refugees from being resettled in the country. The draft order, which was leaked to activist groups and later obtained by The Washington Post, would also temporarily stop all refugee resettlement from all countries and cut refugee admissions from 100,000 to 50,000 a year.
Additionally, the draft order suggests that all visitors from a number of Muslim-majority countries — likely to include Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — would have their visas to the United States blocked until new visa procedures, including Trump's so-called “extreme vetting,” are installed.
These moves described in the draft are likely to be popular with many Trump supporters. Polls have suggested that the U.S. is deeply divided on the subject of refugees, and there is widespread concern about the threat posed by extremist Islamist terrorism. It's likely that Trump's tough talk on immigration helped his November election win to a considerable degree.
It's also worth noting that the president's campaign rhetoric went much further than the proposals being discussed this week, with Trump calling for a total ban on Muslim visitors to the U.S. — a dramatic policy that would have been globally unique and arguably unconstitutional.
Yet the wisdom of any immigration policies that indirectly target Muslims and seek to block refugees is far from clear. There's little, if any, clear evidence that blocking Syrian refugees and Muslim visitors to the U.S. would help reduce the threat from terrorism.
More alarmingly, the policies described in the draft order would aid the rhetoric of the extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, that it aims to combat.
A limited effect on terror plots
How many Syrian refugees resettled in the United States have been convicted of a terrorism-related charge since Sept. 11, 2001? In 2015, the State Department put the number at zero. There appear to have been no new cases since then.
Refugees of other nationalities have been convicted for their involvement in terror plots — the congressional office of Jeff Sessions, Trump's current pick for attorney general and a fierce immigration critic, completed his own investigation last year that found 24 between 2001 and 2014. However, from Sessions's data, it was unclear whether these cases involved people who had been resettled or people who had claimed asylum at America's borders. Even if they were all the former, they would be a tiny fraction of the more than 900,000 refugees resettled since 2001.
Look at the realities of Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States and it's clear why so few, if any, have been involved in terror plots. Most obviously, there simply aren't that many Syrian refugees in the U.S. — fewer than 20,000 have been resettled since 2001, according to the most recent State Department information.
Though Trump talks about “extreme vetting,” the security restrictions in place on Syrian refugees over the past few years are already considerable. Syrian refugees hoping to be resettled to the United States have to go through a long and complicated vetting process that requires scrutiny from bodies including the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Department.
If you were an organization intent on committing a terrorist attack in America, refugee resettlement would be a highly inefficient and risky route to go. Even Syrians with legitimate refugee claims and honest intentions often drop out of the process due to frustration.
Some Syrian refugees have been charged with terror plots in Europe. However, the situation within Europe is far different than that in America. In 2015 alone, 378,000 Syrians applied for asylum across the European Union, and they were part of a far broader movement of refugees and migrants that stood at more than 1.3 million that year. Most of these people were not resettled but instead came across Europe's borders in an informal and largely chaotic manner, meaning security vetting was difficult and often nonexistent.
Even in Europe, it's important to note that the vast majority of Syrians have had nothing to do with terrorism; some have actively foiled terror plots in Germany. In many of the most high-profile attacks in Europe — including the 2015 attacks in Paris and the 2016 attacks in Brussels and Nice — most of the perpetrators were not refugees or migrants, but citizens of the very countries they were attacking.
That trend holds true in the U.S. as well. Omar Mateen, the Islamic State-inspired gunman who killed 49 people in Orlando in June, was a U.S. citizen born in New York. Trump's broader restrictions on visas for visitors from Muslim-majority countries won't do anything about that sort of homegrown Islamist radicalism, nor the persistent and deadlier threat of far-right terrorism in the United States.
More curiously, the visa restrictions mentioned in the draft executive order may omit a number of countries whose citizens have been linked to terror plots in the U.S. — including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt. The White House says this is because adequate security measures are in place in those countries, but it is likely to upset key U.S. allies who will have their movement restricted, such as the Iraqi Kurds.
A boon for the Islamic State's rhetoric
Further restrictions on refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries may well be inefficient. More worryingly, they may be counterproductive in the battle against the Islamic State.
Muslims living in the Middle East and Africa are far more likely to be victims of extremism than those in the West. Globally, studies have shown that Muslims tend to make up the largest proportion of terror victims, with countries such as Syria and Iraq suffering the highest toll.
At the same time, groups like the Islamic State seek to win over Muslims not only with violence, but also with propaganda that calls for a Holy War that pits an Islamic caliphate against a Christian West. As WorldViews' Ishaan Tharoor has noted, this rhetoric has clear similarities with that used by some key Trump supporters. For example, Stephen K. Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, once spoke of the “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam.”
Western sympathy and support for refugees from the Muslim world clearly undercuts this idea of a clash of civilizations. The Islamic State knows this. At the height of Europe's refugee crisis, the group's propaganda outfits put out a variety of desperate-seeming messages questioning why Muslims would flee from their caliphate. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, catalogued some of these messages, if you want to read.
“Would You Exchange What Is Better for What Is Less?” is the title of one video directed at Muslim refugees.
In response to this problem, the Islamic State has made clear efforts to disrupt any Western embrace of refugees. It has taken advantage of migrant routes to Europe to transport fighters back to Europe. On a practical level, the tactic helps supporters evade security operations, but it also works on a symbolic level by sowing suspicion about refugees on the continent. At the same time, they have urged their followers in the West to commit violence, with the aim of eliminating the “gray zone” of tolerance and pluralism that still existed in many countries.
By refusing to allow Syrian refugees into the country and restricting access to others from Muslim-majority nations, Trump's draft executive order would help eliminate the common ground to be found with Muslims. Ominously, the Islamic State predicted this in a 2015 essay in propaganda magazine Dabiq, claiming that attacks in the West would compel “the crusaders to actively destroy the gray zone themselves.”
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