What Conservatives Get Wrong About Trump's Immigration Order

There’s reason to reserve judgment, but no cause for giving the president the benefit of the doubt.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Late Sunday, National Review published an editorial on Donald Trump’s executive order titled “Trump’s Order on Refugees: Mostly Right on Substance, Wrong on Rollout.”

Echoing arguments circulating widely on the center right, it notes that capping refugees at 50,000 per year is similar to the policy that prevailed under George W. Bush and for Barack Obama’s first term; that the directive to prioritize religious minority refugees in affected countries makes sense, given the existential threat they face from ISIS; and that there is precedent for Trump’s order. “In 2011, the Obama administration halted refugee-processing from Iraq for six months in order to do exactly what the Trump administration is doing now: ensure that terrorists were not exploiting the program to enter the country,” the editorial states, adding dismissively that “no one rushed to JFK International to protest.”

In another slam at Trump critics, the editorial declares that “the instant backlash, which has culminated in thousands of protesters creating chaos at the nation’s airports, is the result more of knee-jerk emotion than a sober assessment of Trump’s policy.” As the Islamic State continues its reign of terror, “it should be a matter of common sense that the U.S. needs to evaluate and strengthen its vetting,” the piece argues, focusing its criticism of the Trump administration on its implementation of the directive:

Trump’s order displays much of the amateurism that dominated his campaign. There seems to have been no guidance provided by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to the officials nationwide who would be responsible for executing the order; and on Saturday, as refugees were being detained at airports across the country, it was reported that local officials were struggling to contact Customs and DHS higher-ups. The confusion extended to the question of whether the executive order applied to green-card holders. It took DHS secretary John Kelly more than 24 hours to clarify that this is not the case.

Similarly, the White House should stipulate that this policy does not apply to the many Iraqi refugees who have acted as aides and translators to Allied forces... The order allows the relevant officials to intervene on a case-by-case basis to “issue visas or other immigration benefits to nationals of countries for which visas and benefits are otherwise blocked,” but this permission seems to have gone initially unnoticed.

The editorial is correct in parts. Whether right or wrong, capping refugees at 50,000 per year is hardly unprecedented; there is nothing wrong, in principle, with evaluating the vetting process used to guard against terrorists entering the United States; the order does allow relevant officials to intervene on a case-by-case basis; and the Trump administration’s implementation is as indefensible as the editors say.

Still, I find the editorial as a whole deeply wrongheaded, in large part because it strips away or ignores indispensable context. And I hope its authors will reconsider.

* * *

The most glaring flaw in the editorial is its characterization of what befell green-card holders, which I wrote about in “A Betrayal of Legal Immigrants Who Followed the Rules.” To say that “confusion” surrounded whether these legal, permanent residents would be affected, and that it took 24 hours “to clarify” that it was not the case, implies that the Trump administration never meant to bar their entry.

It would be more accurate to say that the executive order erected a new barrier that kept green-card holders from entering the U.S.; that the Department of Homeland Security and a senior White House official both stated that green-card holders would be barred; that John Kelly, the new head of the Department of Homeland Security, reversed that position on green-card holders in a statement issued on Sunday evening; and that the reversal doesn’t clarify that green-card holders were never affected by the executive order, it affirms that the order covers them, but adds that the new waivers they must now request if they travel abroad will be granted.

Now a question for the editors of National Review.

If not for the public-interest attorneys and journalists rushing to airports to speak with the family members of green-card holders about their unconscionable treatment, the legal challenges filed by non-profit organizations funded by the public, and the masses of outraged Americans who gathered at those same airports to protest, are you sure that the Trump administration would’ve reversed course?

The fact that the reversal on green-card holders occurred suggests at least the possibility that the people who congregated in hopes of that outcome were sober in their assessment of reality, and that the real knee-jerk response here is National Review’s temperamental aversion to anything that smacks of leftist street protests, especially when the protests are informed by a belief that the U.S. government is engaged in bigotry. In various instances I have critiqued charges of bigotry. Here I am baffled by National Review’s confidence in dismissing the possibility that this executive order springs from anti-Muslim bigotry, and is an attempt to ban Muslims to the extent possible in a nation that would resist a naked, total attempt.

I agree we cannot call that established fact.

And the conservatives declaring that this is “not a Muslim ban” are correct in noting, as I’ve done in my coverage, that the executive order doesn’t affect people from many majority Muslim countries, like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and that even with respect to the affected countries it is billed as a temporary measure to make sure adequate security measures are in place, not a permanent ban on those nationalities.

But the Americans who doubt the official explanation, the people protesting Trump who did not protest Obama, are not engaged in knee-jerk emotion or hypocrisy.

They are forming reasonable concerns and responding to easily distinguishable facts.

Before Obama imposed a 6-month  pause in processing refugees from Iraq, an FBI investigation discovered that several dozen suspected terrorists may have been erroneously allowed to move from Iraq to the United States under the Bush administration. Two men living in Kentucky admitted making roadside bombs in Iraq. “As a result of the Kentucky case, the State Department stopped processing Iraq refugees for six months in 2011,” ABC News reported in 2013, “even for many who had heroically helped U.S. forces as interpreters and intelligence assets. One Iraqi who had aided American troops was assassinated before his refugee application could be processed, because of the immigration delays.”

There was never any reason to suspect Obama had hidden motives for pausing to reevaluate security procedures; he did so in response to specific evidence of serious screening flaws; even then the cost of delay was terrible; but by the time the public even became aware of what had happened, refugee processing was up and running again. That Obama’s order generated no mass protests makes total sense.

Now consider Trump, whose vastly more expansive and consequential order covers seven majority Muslim countries, responds to no particular threat, post-dates the previous review on Iraq, and flows from the pen of a very different man who has said very different things about the people whose status he just changed.

Trump has lied about seeing thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. He  has attacked the Gold Star mother of a Muslim American soldier with an anti-Muslim stereotype. He tapped a high-ranking adviser, Mike Flynn, with a long history of making statements that are anti-Islam. Is National Review at all concerned that Trump might hold bigoted views against Muslims? Because more to the point, Trump declared repeatedly during his campaign that he wanted to ban Muslims from the United States.

Numerous Republicans criticized him for doing so.

That is the biggest reason many fear he is now trying to ban Muslims and using this order as a pretext.

His close adviser, Rudy Giuliani, told Fox News in a live interview that the executive order Trump just signed sprang from a committee Giuliani formed for the specific purpose of constructing a Muslim ban in a way that would pass legal muster!

Giuliani added that the ban eventually came to focus on countries where there was “substantial evidence that people were sending terrorists into our country.” Yet the order affects several countries that have yet to send a terrorist to the United States, and does not affect numerous Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers; the United Arab Emirates or Egypt, home to other 9/11 hijackers; or Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was hidden.

The totality of these circumstances caused Ben Wittes, who usually avoids knee-jerk responses, to conclude that the executive order was written maliciously. “This document is the implementation of a campaign promise to keep out Muslims,” he declared, “moderated only by the fact that certain allied Muslim countries are left out because the diplomatic repercussions of including them would be too detrimental.” Ross Douthat was more cautious, declaring in his New York Times column, “time will bring a certain clarity. We’ll find out whether Trump’s refugee and visa freezes from Muslim countries are actually temporary, a means to stricter screening, or whether they become permanent.”

I understand the wait-and-see approach.

But why is National Review taking the word of the Trump administration on these matters, despite knowing that Trump is a serial liar and a man of poor character, and having editorialized that “Trump knows approximately as much about national security as he does about the nuclear triad — which is to say, almost nothing,” and that “on immigration, Trump often makes no sense and can’t be relied upon”?

I suspect part of the reason is a knee-jerk aversion to even entertaining the idea that a Republican president of the United States could be maliciously targeting an ethnic minority group. I can respect those who say that we cannot presently make that call definitively. But it is wrong to denounce protesters—who can cite ample circumstantial evidence to justify their concerns—for defending a vulnerable group at the first hint that they’re being targeted by unjust policies, rather than waiting to satisfy those temperamentally prone to missing such injustice until it’s too late.

And it is downright bizarre to criticize protesters who flocked to airports before the reversal of the green-card order, which National Review itself considered wrongheaded.

National Review complained about “chaos” the protesters supposedly caused at airports. If we could rewind history to Friday, would the editors prefer a scenario with zero protesters, confident that green-card holders would be taken care of anyway? I suspect they would be less willing to make that gamble if they had family members affected by the order. The people I spoke to at LAX Saturday, who had a grandmother or uncle or spouse detained, were buoyed in a difficult moment: While fearful about their place in America, they were met by a big crowd of peaceful supporters outside the terminal singing the Star Spangled Banner and Amazing Grace.

Cars passing on the departures level were honking in support, too.

To side with the president, giving him the benefit of these doubts, even knowing he is an untrustworthy liar, and to make uncharitable assumptions about airport protesters, is beneath a magazine that distinguished itself for seeing Trump clearly. And I suspect that if a president campaigned on promises to ban Christians from immigrating to America, or to target movement conservatives––then appeared to test how far he could go in that direction without pushback from lawmakers, the press, or the people––even National Review editors who weren’t inclined to allude to the Holocaust would take comfort in seeing a sign in support of Christians or conservatives like a sign we’ve been seeing at these airport protests.

The sign says: “First they came for the Muslims. And we said, Not this time, Motherfucker!”

I sincerely hope that message doesn’t need to be sent to the Trump administration, and perhaps it misjudges their motives. Nevertheless, I am glad it is being sent, no matter if it’s hyperbolic or profane, to an untrustworthy White House, to a world uncertain about the U.S. as Trump takes office, and especially to the Muslim Americans understandably afraid of the new administration. Presidents Bush and Obama made it admirably clear that Muslims are welcome here. Trump, Steve Bannon, and associates have not, so that duty falls to the people. For once, the conservative movement should be among the leaders of the effort to protect vulnerable minorities instead of standing athwart or mocking those efforts. Besides, has anyone ever regretted that they trusted Donald Trump too little?