On the Need for Evidence-Based Policy

On Friday, January 27, at about 5:00 p.m. eastern time, the Trump administration announced a sudden, unilateral, and blanket moratorium on entry into the United States by any person coming from one of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Yemen.

Chaos ensued. Travelers who were in the air when the moratorium took effect suddenly found themselves detained—sometimes for hours—at U.S. airports. The moratorium extended to refugees from these seven countries, many of whom were suddenly turned away from U.S.-bound flights or removed from planes that hadn’t left the ground yet.

The moratorium even extended to green card holders (otherwise known as “lawful permanent residents”), who would be barred from reentering the country for 90 days, although the administration allowed that they could be permitted to enter on a case-by-case basis.

There were mass protests at several airports and a flood of immigration attorneys offered to represent detained refugees and green card holders. A federal judge in Boston issued a temporary restraining order barring enforcement of the moratorium, although Customs and Border Protection officials at some airports apparently were refusing to comply with the order.

Why the sudden moratorium? Trump and Company claim it’s necessary for American security, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Here’s a list of post-9/11 domestic terrorist attacks that seemingly involved Muslim perpetrators:

  • In 2009, U.S. Army Major General Nidal Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood, a military base in Texas. Hasan was born in Virginia. He claimed he wanted to be a “martyr,” but further investigation showed he had acted alone.
  • In 2013, the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon, injuring over 250 people. The brothers were immigrants from Chechnya.
  • In 2015, Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people at a state government building in San Bernardino, California. Farook was born in Chicago. Malik was from Pakistan and lived in the United States on a K-1 (“fiancee”) visa.
  • In 2016, Omar Mateen, a security guard, killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Mateen was born in New York.

It’s unclear why Trump chose to target the countries he did. First of all, every post-9/11 terrorist attack in the United States was perpetrated either by a U.S. citizen, or someone from a country not on the moratorium list. Furthermore, even the 9/11 hijackers themselves wouldn’t have been stopped by the current moratorium; they came from Saudi Arabia, which isn’t on the list. Fears of a “Muslim ban” seem to be more founded than not; the executive order makes no mention of religion (except to prefer admission “when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution”), but publicly, Trump said he would “prioritize” Christian refugees.

Trump’s supporters contend that President Obama banned Iraqi refugees for six months in 2011. That’s not really true. In 2011, the State Department stopped processing refugee applications from Iraq after it was revealed in 2009 that two suspected al-Qaeda members had posed as refugees and were living in Kentucky. After that incident, the refugee screening process was overhauled.

Currently, refugees undergo some of the most rigorous screening imaginable: they’re screened by international refugee agencies, then several U.S. agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and the Justice Department. Trump’s claim, repeated during his campaign, that “we don’t know” anything about the refugees entering the country, is belied by reality. We know quite a lot about refugees entering the country.

Furthermore, the decision to extend the moratorium to green card holders makes even less sense than a decision to ban refugees. Green card holders’ green cards are evidence that they have been vetted and found not to be security risks. Unless Trump is claiming that the green-card vetting process is insufficient (and he’s provided no evidence that it is), a unilateral ban on green card holders from the seven aforementioned countries serves no purpose. Indeed, just today, the Trump administration reversed course on this point and agreed to allow green card holders into the country.

The Trump administration has demonstrated little concern for verifiable facts, choosing instead to make statements without providing evidence to support them, or making statements supported by easily verifiable falsehoods. During the campaign, Trump showed the same penchant for not only making things up, but stating lies that were easily provable as such. (Recall his claim that the NFL sent him a letter complaining that two general election debates had been scheduled opposite two different football games. The debate schedule was created over a year ago, and when contacted, the NFL said it never sent any letter to Trump.)

Trump’s preference for what he believes to be true, or things he knows not to be true but says anyway, butt up against the need for American policy to be based in objective reality. Perhaps Trump thinks he can continue to get away with this, but the reaction to Friday’s sudden refugee order suggests he can’t.