As anyone paying attention will know, the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. Presidency has roused the political left to an extraordinary degree. The most recent hot-button issue, at least until Trump announces his pick for the Supreme Court this evening, has been his executive order to ban travelers to the United States from Syria and pause (for 120 days) travelers from six other majority Muslim countries, including Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, and Yemen. The order seems to target travelers from those countries seen as most problematic from the perspective of the U.S. government (e.g. civil wars, high levels of terrorism or Islamic extremism, Iran’s quarrels with the U.S., etc…).
Regardless of what partisans say on either side of the political isle, it’s a complex issue that needs serious consideration. Indeed, many are still debating the meaning and extent of the order.
I only have a few thoughts that I would like to lay out here, and realize this is by no means exhaustive analysis as far more has been written about the topic by others.
First, let me state that I am uncomfortable with the order in some key ways. For example, I know of many American military members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who love their country and would never want to see it harmed. Yet they fully endorse allowing many of the native Iraqis or Afghans (Muslim or otherwise) who served alongside them in their wars (against Islamic extremism in the form of the Taliban or ISIS, no less) to resettle in the United States. Indeed, in some cases, these particular Iraqis or Afghans saved American lives and contributed significantly to those war efforts, thus endangering their lives (and those of their families) by doing so. The people voicing these objections are often soldiers and Marines, veterans of our recent wars, I want to point out, and not those on the far left.
I asked such a friend, Patrick Minor, about this issue. Patrick is a former U.S. Marine, police officer, and private security contractor who has served in a number of hot spots around the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo. He also has many years of experience training law enforcement officers not only in the United States, but also in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most notably, he directed the Baghdad Police College Transitional Integration Police Firearms Program in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, which was during the well-known “surge” by the U.S. military to restore order in the troubled country. He has worked extensively with Afghans and Iraqis on the ground in the fight against the terrorist organizations that have plagued their countries.
Above Image: Patrick Minor, while training the Afghanistan border patrol in 2011.
Patrick’s work was often highly sensitive, requiring great trust in heavily armed recruits from the local populations as well as the translators he relied on. It’s not surprising he developed lasting friendships with many of them as a result. I asked his thoughts on the Trump executive order and, while generally supportive of a temporary pause in immigration from these countries as a means of allowing for a reset of current U.S. immigration policy, he also noted the following:
I think there needs to be a priority express lane for the locals that helped/and are helping right now. The ones that put their safety and their family’s safety on the line to help us need to be pushed to the front of the line. Two of my previous interpreters have been able to bring their families to our country. I’ve still got friends (Iraqi trainers and interpreters/ Afghani trainers and interpreters) that are trying and trying to get through the visa process. It’s a long and tedious process. I’m cool with refugees coming to our country. But they’ve got to be vetted.
What better way to vet an individual than to work hand in hand with them? I placed my safety and life in the hands of my interpreters and local security staff. I know they would have done anything to keep me safe. I’ve helped several of my interpreters with job references and writing letters of recommendations.
A prominent supporter of Patrick’s view is, no less, the current Secretary of Defense, former Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who is reportedly working hard to secure an exemption for exactly the kind of people Patrick mentioned. Mattis, who I respect and hope will serve as a positive influence on Trump’s foreign policy, has previously spoken out about immigrant bans prior to assuming his position as Secretary of Defense, concerned that such a move would make our allies think we have “lost faith in reason.” I would assume that Mattis, as an experienced veteran well familiar with this region of the world, voiced his concerns within the administration before the implementation of the order, but was overridden and thus is working to minimize its worst effects (as he and many military veterans see it).
Yet aside from these and other concerns ( e.g. the potential impact on U.S. diplomacy, the impact on very young children and the elderly seeking asylum, the impact on students at my college from the suspect countries, etc…), there are some real security issues that still need to be addressed. One may argue that the vast majority of those who come to the U.S. from these troubled countries do not do Americans any harm, and that is certainly true. But unfortunately some do.
In 2006 Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar, a naturalized citizen born in Iran, ran his vehicle into a crowd of people at the University of North Carolina. Thinking he would die in the attack, he left a letter in his apartment explaining that he did it because he wanted to avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world resulting from the policies of the U.S. He later plead guilty to nine counts of attempted first-degree murder. More recently, in 2016, Dahir Adan stabbed nine people in a Minnesota Mall before bring shot dead. He was identified by his father as a Somali who had been born in Kenya. Also in 2016, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a student at Ohio State University whose family had immigrated to the Columbus area from Somalia, drove his car into a group of his fellow students. He then used a butcher knife to attack others before finally being shot to death by a campus police officer.
Yet the total number of such attacks in the U.S. by citizens from the seven suspect countries is admittedly very small and perhaps the credit for this goes to the screening agencies or processes that have prevented far worse results through their vigilance. There have been no Syrians, for example, that I am aware of, that have carried out attacks in the U.S. (but they have done so in other countries).
[Addendum on 2/11: Perhaps the numbers are not insignificant. Eleven days after originally publishing this blog post this story came out, claiming at least 72 terrorists from the seven suspect countries have come to the U.S. since 9/11.]
Nevertheless, the current dynamic in Syria unquestionably lends itself to the radicalization of its citizens. Consider the fact that a 2015 ORB International poll shows 22% of Syrians support ISIS, or that 35% supported the equally murderous Al-Nusra (e.g. Al Qaeda in Syria). This poll is not an outlier; as other polls have suggested considerable support for ISIS or Al-Qaeda in other parts of the Islamic world. More disturbingly, the fact that Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been enemies during this conflict suggest that they do not always have the same supporters, so if you add them together a disturbingly high percentage of the Syrian population potentially supports either ISIS or Al Qaeda, united in their opposition to Syria’s Assad regime.
How, in the case of a shattered and divided country such as Syria, where the normal processes for background checks have been hampered as a result of the war, do you weed out the many supporters of extremist groups from among the general population? How do you know, regardless of one’s ability to provide documentation (birth certificates, passports, etc…), who became radicalized as a result of the war over the last five years? How can one make the screening process airtight so that the 22% (1 out of 5) that support ISIS or the 35% (1 out of 3) that support Al Qaeda do not gain entry to the U.S.?
I am not trying to make a rhetorical point. These are genuine questions and concerns.
Trump’s argument seems to be that you can’t guarantee it, hence the pause, which he claims is temporary, presumably until new and more effective processes can be put in place. He even claims to be following the example of President Obama with relation to Iraq in 2011, so there is a precedent for this sort of thing and the high degree of current outrage does seem selective with regard to Trump as Obama did not catch similar flack when he stopped processing Iraqi refugees (including translators and others who had served alongside the U.S. military) for six months over terrorism concerns.
In the case of Syria, large swathes of the country and its major cities are (or have been) divided up among the varying (often jihadist) groups vying for power there. Syria has proven to be a seething cauldron of jihadism over the last five years, drawing tens of thousands of foreign extremists to the ranks of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other groups competing in the region and inculcating local populations under their authority with their warped views and values. Similar issues, to a lesser extent, exist in many of the other countries on the list (Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, etc…).
There are also other issues to consider, such as the costs of resettling immigrants in the U.S. versus providing safe zones for them in the Middle East (a process that President Trump is apparently working on). According to the Center for Immigration Studies, whose members often testify before the U.S. Congress on matters related to immigration, it costs twelve times as much to resettle a refugee in the United States as it does to provide for them in the neighboring countries in the region where they first gain asylum. This means that for what we spend to bring a single refugee to the U.S., eleven others are not helped with that money.
I may not feel comfortable with Trump’s executive order for the reasons I highlight above, as the genuinely innocent Syrians suffering the effects of the war need help, in some form, but the concerns that prompted the pause did not emerge out of nothing, and I am equally uncomfortable with those who casually dismiss such concerns, particularly in the case of Syria.