The Four Wrong Numbers Behind Trump's Immigration Ban

The White House is using iffy figures and suspect logic to justify its restrictions on travel from several Muslim-majority countries.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Donald Trump has deployed an arsenal of half-truths to defend his controversial executive order on immigration. For instance, he says only 109 people were inconvenienced by the abrupt imposition of the order, which caught some travelers mid-flight and forced others to wait at unfamiliar airport terminals, under guard and unsure of their future.

Then there were the “tens of thousands” of displaced Syrian refugees fleeing a brutal civil war entering the United States—a perfect “trojan horse” for jihadists. That had to stop, but not before Trump fixed a glaring religious schism in the U.S. refugee system: Muslims could supposedly come to America with ease, but for Christians, “it was almost impossible.”

All of these statements are problematic at best and plain wrong at worst.

Claim One: Only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained and held for questioning.

The White House has provided no corroboration for this figure, and Customs and Border Protection couldn’t confirm it immediately. (“I do not know if we have been able to provide solid numbers on that,” a spokesperson said.) The American Civil Liberties Union, whose late-night lawsuit led to a successful partial stay of the executive order, said late Tuesday they’re still waiting for a promised list of detained travelers from the White House.

Trump’s claim is clear, however: Very few people have been inconvenienced by his new entry restrictions, he says.

Perhaps that was true Saturday. It will not be true in the months to come. Last year, nearly 23,000 refugees entered the U.S. between February and June; none will be able to enter now. The Department of State issued just under 95,000 immigrant and visitor visas in fiscal year 2016 to residents of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen; people from those countries are now specifically barred from visiting the United States.

And, of course, there are the countless thousands of Syrian refugees who can no longer look to the United States for sanctuary, until Trump says otherwise.

Claim Two: The U.S. is already exceptionally generous to refugees.

During the campaign, Trump often complained about the money the U.S. spends on refugees and immigrants, saying those funds should be diverted to support deserving Americans instead. “For the amount of money Hillary Clinton would like to spend on refugees, we could rebuild every inner city in America,” he said last June. (The “inner cities” idea was new for Trump; he’s usually more likely to suggest helping veterans.)

The U.S. does accept a large number of refugees. In 2015, it took on more than 66,500 people, a higher number than Canada. As of the end of 2015, the U.S. was home to more refugees than pretty much any other European ally, with the exception of Germany and Turkey (which borders Syria).

Then again, the continental United States is nearly twice as large in area as the European Union, and is far wealthier and more populous than any individual member state. Factoring in population, the United States drops to No. 75 in the world when it comes to sheltering refugees, behind virtually every other rich democracy. Even when controlling for GDP as well as population, the U.S. only hits No. 47.

And by the way, those “tens of thousands” Syrian refugees making their way to America? Only 15,000 or so Syrians were admitted to the U.S. in 2016—hardly the deluge that Trump insists exists.

Claim Three: Refugees (and Syrians in particular) are a significant security threat.

As noted earlier, Trump views the incoming refugee population as a potential vector for terrorists to enter the United States. Indeed, he said his haste in signing the immigration executive order—which caught even the head of homeland security unawares—was actually a ploy to keep “bad dudes” from bum-rushing the U.S. border.

As my colleague Uri Friedman writes here, precisely zero Americans have been killed by Syrian refugees via terror attacks on U.S. soil. Indeed, over the last four decades, only 20 refugees have ever been convicted of committing or attempting terrorism within the U.S., according to an analysis by the Cato Institute. That’s out of 3.25 million refugees who have been admitted into the country, or .0006%.

The vast majority of domestic terror plots are planned and executed by U.S. citizens. Here’s a count of terror suspects arrested or killed since 2001, as tabulated by New America:

America has suffered a few truly horrible domestic terror attacks over the past decade, and thwarted several more. Almost none of them involved refugees.

Claim Four: The U.S. government is discriminating against Christian refugees in favor of Muslims.

Trump says Muslims are dramatically favored at the expense of Christians in U.S. refugee resettlement efforts. He focuses on Syrian Christians in his interview with CBN, and the numbers are on his side: Out of the 12,600 Syrians admitted on 2016, 99 percent were Muslim, according to Pew Research. About 5 percent of Syria’s population is Christian.

From Trump’s interview:

They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim, you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.

Ted Cruz made a similar argument during a Senate hearing in September, noting that the resettlement program “seems to actively keep out Syrian-Christian refugees.” Neither Trump nor Cruz offered any evidence that the Obama administration discriminated against Syrian Christians. In his response to Cruz, an Obama administration official said that most Christian Syrians live in areas protected by the Assad regime or have decamped to Lebanon, where the U.S. refugee aid presence is smaller.

And more broadly, Trump is on the wrong track. In the 2016 fiscal year, Christians made up 44 percent of the 85,000 refugees who settled in America. Muslims accounted for only a slightly larger percentage — 46 percent, just over a thousand more people. Christians and Muslims entered the country at roughly the same rate.

But let’s give Trump the benefit of the doubt. After all, 46 percent is higher than 44 percent, though not as much as his rhetoric would seem to indicate. Even so, the president’s argument falls apart in the long run. Since 2002, the U.S. has welcomed 399,677 Christian refugees, compared to 279,339 Muslims. If anything, this suggests a pro-Christian bias.

In short, Trump has used suspect figures to justify and defend a rather drastic course of action. And his order contains instructions to create more: DHS is now required to regularly publish a count of foreign nationals charged with terrorism-related crimes or “gender-based violence against women.” These statistics will surely find their way into speeches and editorials arguing for stricter measures. For now, Trump has more than enough inconvenient numbers to worry about.