Donald Kerwin is executive director of the Center for Migration Studies and editor of the Journal on Migration and Human Security. Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11.”
“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem,” H.L. Mencken wrote. “Neat, plausible, and wrong.” Such is the case with President Trump’s plans to temporarily halt the flow of refugees to the United States and bar travelers from certain Muslim countries. What could be neater and more plausible than cracking down on people from terrorism hot spots to ensure that no terrorists are admitted to the country?
Yet as Trump and the country may painfully relearn, effective screening to protect homeland security requires good intelligence and close cooperation with allies to identify genuine threats. The crude alternatives the president advocates will weaken that cooperation, damage U.S. diplomacy and leave the United States more exposed to terrorism.
The United States has made this mistake before. After Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched a series of initiatives to block the entry of people from Muslim-majority countries as a security measure to prevent follow-on attacks. The most sweeping was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, in which nearly all male immigrants and travelers from two dozen Muslim-majority nations and North Korea faced what could be called “extreme vetting”; each time they tried to enter the United States, they were pulled aside for hours of secondary screening and forced to undergo intrusive questioning by border officials. Those already living here had to register with the government, face similar questioning and prove their lawful status.
If he follows through with a draft executive order, titled “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals,” obtained by the press on Wednesday, Trump’s approach would be similarly indiscriminate. The draft order calls for shutting down all refugee processing for several months, barring refugees from Syria and then cutting admissions in half over the next year. It also would temporarily bar all travelers from countries thought to pose a high security risk, reportedly including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan, and would place restrictions on sensible risk-management measures such as waiving visa interviews for low-risk travelers. It includes a threat to withhold visas from countries deemed insufficiently cooperative.
Like NSEERS, these new restrictions, if carried out, would target many legitimate travelers and upset relations with important allies in the war on terrorism. Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson testified this month that “one of our greatest allies in this war is going to be the moderate voices of Muslims.” Colin Powell, who was secretary of state as NSEERS was implemented after 9/11, spent many hours soothing the bruised feelings of allies who felt wrongly targeted.
Should the orders go forward, Tillerson will face the same sort of protests, and they will come not just from the targeted countries themselves. Close allies such as Germany and even Canada, which has opened the door to Syrian refugees, will rightly feel that the United States is not sharing the burden of the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.
The proposed measures would also impair the ability of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to gain cooperation from targeted communities in the United States. Closer cooperation between the FBI and American Muslims, for example, is one reason the United States has not faced another major terrorist attack since 9/11. The revival of crude initiatives to block entry to the United States by other Muslims would jeopardize those relationships.
The example of NSEERS should weigh heavily. For all the disruption it caused, NSEERS did not lead to a single terrorism-related prosecution. The best the 9/11 Commission could say was that its counterterrorism benefits were “unclear” and it may have had some deterrent effect. Former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner James Ziglar said the program “caused us to use resources in the field that could have been much better deployed” and “we got nothing out of it.”
The approach apparently being prepared by the Trump team would be especially wrongheaded given the enormous advances in security screening over the past decade. Scrutiny of visa applicants is far better than it was before 9/11. Overseas visitors are now fingerprinted and photographed, in order to check their identities against terrorist databases. The government further ensures identity through secure travel documents, runs robust checks against immigration, criminal and terrorism databases, and targets people with suspicious travel or other patterns. And, the multiyear U.S. vetting and screening process for refugees, many of them fleeing terrorism, is more thorough and exhaustive than any other admissions process to the United States.
All these systems were developed to create maximum safety with minimum disruption to lawful travel. Instead of recognizing and building on those advances, Trump is calling for country-by-country bans on travel to the United States that would cause maximum disruption and compromise U.S. safety.
By bringing back these kinds of measures, Trump would be embarking on a path that failed before and would only weaken America’s diplomacy and its security. The White House should learn the lessons of that history and change course.