Courtesy of Ted Eytan via Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)
The Supreme Court in June allowed President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban to partially go into effect, barring foreign nationals of six majority-Muslim countries who lack any “bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States” from entering the country. The travel ban, which targeted Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Libya and Yemen — was temporarily lifted for non-citizens with relationships with persons or entities in the U.S., but those who could not prove this “bona fide relationship” were affected by this decision. The court cancelled scheduled hearings on the constitutionality of the travel ban, which expired on Sunday, in light of a revised version of the order Trump introduced this week that includes a modified list of eight countries. While the previous ban temporarily limited travel for 90 days from the six countries impacted, the restrictions on travel for the new list of countries are not time based, but condition based.
The new ban removes Sudan and adds North Korea, Venezuela and Chad to the list of countries that will face restrictions in travel to the U.S. beginning Oct. 18. Yet it could still face the same criticisms as the previous temporary ban, given that the Supreme Court ruling that modified that order prompted a host of reactions from the left and right sides of the political spectrum on the issues such as homeland security and religious discrimination. Trump called the court’s decision “a clear victory for our national security.” But Becca Heller of the International Refugee Assistance Project told the New Yorker: “Practically, in terms of who can enter the country, if the government follows the expressed language of the decision — which is an open question — the impact should be limited. But the stigma is significant.” The arguments made before the lower courts focused on how the temporary travel ban discriminated against Muslims and refugees, its underlying assumption being that ALL Muslims and refugees are a threat to national security. In contrast, opponents argued, accepting refugees of all or no religious faiths into the United States regardless of their personal ties to the country reflects core American values, protects our national security interests and addresses the reality of the Syrian refugee crisis head on. After all, these refugees who have no ties to the U.S. come seeking asylum and new opportunities, just as our forefathers sought asylum in this great nation and defined those core values that would shape our identity as a nation.
In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York. A beacon for freedom, acceptance and tolerance, Lady Liberty is a symbol of light and hope to new immigrants. The foundation of this country has been built on refugees’ dreams for new beginnings, which translated into hard work and ingenuity. American history has seen the country welcome Protestants fleeing persecution at the hands of Catholics, Catholics fleeing persecution at the hands of Protestants, 4 million Irishmen escaping persecution at the hands of the English and the Irish potato famine, 1 million Mexicans fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution, around 1 million Cubans fleeing persecution brought on by the Cuban Revolution and 405,000 refugees arriving from Vietnam.
Yet despite this impressive track record, the United States has also expressed reluctance at times in accepting certain refugee groups. In the years before World War II, Americans were hesitant to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, fearing that the refugees would be pressured into working as agents for Germany, a mistake that was deeply regrettable. Ultimately, Americans paid a significant price for this mistake as the appalling truths of the Holocaust became evident to the world and the U.S. was left with the moral, political and economic responsibility of rectifying these horrific injustices. This time, we have the opportunity to learn from history and refuse to let fear dictate our foreign policy.
Critics argue that the acceptance of refugees in early American history and the current refugee crisis should not be equated because the refugees of today supposedly pose a national security threat. In reality, studies show that this threat is hyperbolized by some media outlets and some in the political establishment. The Cato Institute found that of the 859,629 refugees admitted to the U.S. since 2001, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks, and none were successfully carried out. In addition, a chief from the U.N. refugee agency says Syrian and other refugees pose no national security threat to the U.S. This is because according to an immigration officer, they are the most heavily vetted group of people seeking entry into the country. The 2016 presidential election featured a vicious cycle of scapegoating, hate speech and fear mongering. The portrayal of ISIS in the media led many to conflate ISIS with the entire Islamic religion encompassing all of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. This false association has created an exaggerated, irrational state of fear and paved the way for biased policies, such as the travel ban.
Orders or policies that aim to deny refugees entry into the United States because of their race or religion are by definition prejudicial. In targeting primarily refugees from Muslim-majority nations entry, critics say the travel bans, in particular the now expired temporary order, appear to be based on the assumption that the Muslims in these countries are dangerous. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s then-national security advisor when the first version of the travel ban was issued, reportedly stated in August 2016 that Islam was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people.” The administration’s erroneous assumption that every Muslim national from these six countries potentially poses a dangerous terroristic threat to Americans means that the ban specifically targets Muslims. The administration’s travel bans neglect to acknowledge the Muslims of the world as a diverse and mostly peaceful group. Instead, they have lumped all Muslims from those countries together as potential terrorists by wrongfully assuming that Islam itself is the catalyst that breeds terrorism.
The Trump administration’s travel bans repudiate American traditions of tolerance and pluralism by rejecting those seeking new beginnings and promoting generalized narratives about Islam and Muslims. Additionally, in targeting majority Muslim refugees, the travel bans violate the Constitution’s protections against religious discrimination outlined in the First and 14th amendments. Not only is accepting refugees into the United States the right the thing to do, but it is also the most American thing to do.
Lana Elserag is a senior at Carnegie Vanguard High School and an intern for the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East. She plans to major in political science in college.