My family arrived in the United States in 1976, when I was 7, as Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. I might well not be here, enjoying the greatness of America, if Donald Trump had been president back then. And I would definitely not be writing these words on a MacBook because the genius behind Apple computers, Steve Jobs, was born to a Syrian immigrant father.
At the end of his very first week in office, Trump signed a sweeping executive order that bans all refugees from coming here for 120 days while vetting procedures, already tough, are toughened even further. He also imposed a 90-day suspension on all visitors, not just refugees, from seven Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — along with an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria.
The ostensible justification for this xenophobic edict is to protect us from terrorists. Yet by my calculation, of the 89 individuals who have been implicated in terrorist plots against the United States since 2001, the only ones who might have been affected by this ban were three Somali Americans who did not succeed in killing anyone. The Orlando and Fort Hood shooters, along with one of the San Bernardino shooters, who together murdered 76 fellow Americans, were all born in the United States. And of the killers from abroad, all of them came from countries not on Trump’s target list. The 9/11 hijackers, for example, hailed from Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The second San Bernardino killer, Tashfeen Malik, was born in Pakistan and came here from Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the Trump Organization does business in many of the Muslim countries whose citizens are still allowed to come here, such as the UAE, Indonesia and Turkey, but not in any of the seven countries whose passport-holders are barred. Maybe Trump is still allowing travel from most Muslim nations on the sensible grounds of avoiding a diplomatic crisis with allies and trading partners.
Or it could be that he felt compelled to limit the scope of the edict to avoid a domestic political backlash over instituting a “Muslim ban” — which is what Trump had initially proposed in 2015 and what his adviser, Rudy Giuliani, says he is now trying to achieve through the back door. Whatever the president’s reasoning (and that of White House senior strategist Stephen Bannon, whose Breitbart website showcases “alt-right” racists, anti-Semites, misogynists and xenophobes), it simply underscores how arbitrary and irrational his executive order actually is.
The biggest danger we now face is no longer from foreign terrorists because border security measures have been greatly strengthened since 9/11. We still remain vulnerable, however, to U.S. citizens who have been radicalized from afar. To the extent that this executive order is perceived as a reflection of “Islamophobia” — a perception that Trump feeds by saying he will give favoritism in refugee admissions to Christians — it will likely galvanize more homegrown terrorists. It is, in short, the best New Year’s present that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda terrorist groups could have received.
But if this executive order does not stop actual attackers, whom does it affect? Given the slapdash way it was crafted and implemented, there was rampant confusion over that very question on Saturday. Would permanent residents born in one of the seven verboten countries be forbidden re-entry? What about dual nationals, such as British Iraqis or Canadian Iranians?
Customs and Border Protection agents at various airports, uncertain about how to enforce the order, detained two disabled Iranian green card holders, ages 88 and 83 (maybe they were hiding bombs in their wheelchairs?); a Sudanese graduate student at Stanford who has lived in the USA since 1993 and had graduated from Harvard; and an Iraqi refugee who had risked his life by spending 10 years working for U.S. forces in Iraq. (Brandon Friedman, a former 101st Airborne officer who worked with Hameed Khalid Darweesh, told The New York Times: “There are not many Americans who have done as much for this country as he has. He’s put himself on the line.”) An award-winning Clemson University engineer and a scientist heading to Harvard to do tuberculosis research, both from Iran, were not allowed to board planes for America.
Luckily, by late Saturday, amid protests at major airports coast to coast, several federal judges had issued orders blocking deportation of those detained pending a fuller hearing on the constitutionality of Trump’s order. Unfortunately, the president retains wide discretion to determine who is allowed to enter this country. Thus Trump may well prevail in this legal fight.
If so, it will represent a stunning repudiation of all that the United States has stood for as a haven for refugees from all over the world — including my family. Far from keeping our country safe, Trump is increasing our insecurity by losing sight of what made America great in the first place.