Trump’s Flawed Defense of His Immigration Order

“The notion that dangerous individuals could rush into the country in the timeframe of a week flies in the face of reality,” according to one immigration lawyer.

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order to impose tighter vetting of travelers entering the United States, at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2017.  (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

President Trump’s  signing of an executive order last Friday suspending the admission of refugees and nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries to the United States drew criticism, protest and confusion.  On Monday, Trump suggested that providing advance notice would have created an incentive, and an opening, for dangerous individuals to infiltrate the country.

“If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!,” he tweeted.

Immigration experts caution, however, that the president’s argument lacks credibility. To start, the idea that “bad” “dudes” could have rushed into the United States in the span of a week is at odds with the length of time typically involved in processing refugee and immigration applications for entry into the country.

“The notion that dangerous individuals could rush into the country in the timeframe of a week flies in the face of reality,” said William Stock, an immigration lawyer based in Philadelphia and the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “In many consulates, you can’t even get a visa appointment if you only have one week’s notice. People would not be able to get through interviews that quickly if there were a big rush of applicants trying to get into the country, let alone be approved for admission into the country.”

Doris Meissner, who served as commissioner of the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton, similarly dismissed Trump’s suggestion that advance notice would have allowed a flood of terrorists to enter the country as implausible.

“The idea that the country would have been vulnerable to a wave of people rushing in if the administration had announced the ban was going into place ahead of time is unrealistic,” said Meissner, citing the restrictions and vetting already in place. “It’s a way of trying to deal with the backlash from what was a poorly coordinated and poorly communicated policy change.”

There is already a rigorous system of vetting in place for refugees seeking admission to the United States. The vetting process is even more intense for Syrian refugees, and may take up to two or more years to complete. Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens are now barred from entry into the U.S. for 90 days as a result of Trump’s executive order, had also been targeted for additional scrutiny under President Obama’s administration.

In February 2016, the Obama administration announced that Libya, Somalia, and Yemen were designed as “countries of concern,” as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s effort to address “the threat of foreign fighters.” Certain individuals who had traveled to the seven countries also faced limitations on their access to the U.S. government’s visa waiver program, which allows some travelers to visit the United States without a visa, though they must still obtain authorization for entry.

In defending its executive order, the Trump administration has pointed to the fact that those seven nations had been singled out previously. Fact-checkers at PolitiFact and The Washington Post, however, have broadly rated Trump’s efforts to compare his immigration and refugee policies with the previous administration’s as misleading, in part because Obama did not announce a policy halting refugee admissions. (Reuters reported on Monday night that the administration intended to allow in several hundred refugees deemed “in transit” when the order was issued. Trump has also insisted that his order is “not a Muslim ban.”)

As for the chaos that followed the directive, during his run for the White House, Donald Trump argued that the United States needed to be more unpredictable, suggesting that surprise should be a key element of America’s national security strategy. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said in a foreign policy address in April.

“Everything we do, we announce,” he lamented one month earlier, in March, suggesting that the alternative would be “winning, and announcing when it’s all over.” In the case of the administration’s new executive order, however, uncertainty appears to have led to intense uncertainty and disorder among the very agencies that are supposed to protect the country. “It wasn’t until Friday, the day Trump signed the order, CNN reported “that career homeland security staff were allowed to see the final details … The result was widespread confusion across the country on Saturday as airports struggled to adjust to the new directives.”

Fallout over the directive highlights the strategic pitfalls of Trump’s declared preference for unpredictability. “Of course, we should not telegraph that we are launching a commando raid on a terrorist target in advance,” said David Schanzer, the director of Duke University's Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “However, the chaos, disruption, and injustice caused by the immigration ban that Trump issued demonstrates why unpredictability is usually not a sound basis for national security policy.”

Trump’s argument could also erode the American public’s trust in the government’s ability to keep the country safe, precisely because it suggests that there are not proper security safeguards in place for travel to the United States. “Essentially what he’s saying is that the American law enforcement officials who do the job of processing immigration and refugee applications are incompetent and can’t be trusted,” Stock said.

“A more cynical view of this would be that something like this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Meissner said. “Trump argues that government can’t do things effectively, and then creates circumstances that ensure that the government can’t do things effectively.” She added: “I’m not saying that’s what’s happening here. I would rather at this point chalk it up to inexperience, and perhaps a lack of communication between the incoming administration and career officials that can be addressed. But ultimately, what this is going to do is continue to undermine public confidence in the institution of government.”