Stakes on a Plane: An Early Analysis of the “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” Executive Order

(This is the third installment of a series of articles unpacking the many executive orders issued in Donald Trump’s first week of office. Click here to read the first installment (on the Border Security Executive Order), and here to read the second installment (on the Enhanced Public Safety Executive Order). Though I am not an immigration specialist, I am a legal generalist working with indigent populations professionally full-time. This article is not intended to form an attorney-client relationship or constitute legal advice, though it is my hope that it will help people understand what is going on.)

After nearly two full days of blissfully executive-order-free existence, this one (which was signed at 4:50 PM on a Friday, which just so happened to also be Holocaust Remembrance Day, and is still not up on the White House website) is a real blow to morale. The EO is a significant break from decades of humanitarian effort, and places the lives of many traumatized and suffering people in further peril. I’ll do my best to unpack what the executive order is actually saying, to help families prepare and to inform the average citizen what we can expect on this front. I’m also going to close this post with suggestions for how to support our immigrant communities, because at the end of this week I’m sure many of us are wondering how to help.

Here’s what is new and clearly articulated as of today, January 28:

  • For the next 90 days, entry to the country is suspended for immigrants and nonimmigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. As several writings have noted, this is already being implemented against people touching down in U.S. airports, including people who are legal permanent residents. Now is therefore a very bad time to travel at all if you are an immigrant of any non-citizen status from those seven countries. These countries are widely believed to be targeted due to their predominantly Muslim demographics, though several countries with also predominantly Muslim demographics (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) have been left off the list. Since the provision outlining this requires several reports from government officials, we may see some flux in which countries remain on (or are added to) this list long-term. The EO contains an exemption clause “on a case-by-case basis,” when entry “is in the nation’s interest,” which we can probably assume refers to how much various people in the current government already like you.
  • Heart-wrenching changes are being made to the United States Refugee Admissions Program, which this executive order refers to as “realignment”. These changes include a four-month bar of entry for all refugees from all countries — the longest bar in our history, and nearly twice the length of the bar put in place after 9/11 — and indefinite suspension of any accepted refugees from Syria. During that four-month bar, the Department of Homeland Security will make currently-vague determinations about which countries will have reinstated refugee programs after the bar has lifted, though presumably this would not include anyone from the seven countries listed above. The executive order also limits the total number of refugees that may be admitted to 50,000 in fiscal year 2017, which is less than half the number in place before this order was issued (and the lowest number cited in over a decade). Once the USRAP is resumed, priority will be given to people who are religious minorities in their home country, which Donald Trump has clarified publicly to mean Christian applicants. The executive order also contains the same general exemption “on a case-by-case basis,” when it is “in the national interest” (which probably means Our Fuhrer’s interest, though the executive order does mention potential exemptions for people already in transit). I’ll talk more about what these provisions mean, and how they change life for people fleeing traumatic and dangerous circumstance, in a section below.
  • Many, many more reports more reports are being ordered from the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General, as well as a few more from the Secretary of State. The executive order requires reports every 30 days pursuant to Section 3, reports within 60 and 100 days pursuant to Section 4, reports within 100 and 200 days pursuant to Section 5, reports within 100, 200, and 365 days pursuant to Section 7, and reports every 180 days pursuant to Section 10. This is, keep in mind, in addition to all those reports ordered by the other two executive orders. Only the reports about terrorist acts will be available to the public (because keeping all of America terrified seems to be an actual goal of this administration), but I honestly don’t see how all of the other reports are even going to get done — Trump did, after all, order a hiring freeze, and several reports also involve a State department which has been famously vacated this past week. I would feel bad for these officials, except for the part where the writing on the border wall was about nine feet high on this; constant reports are a known favored technique in this type of government regime.
  • Screening is being made more rigorous on a number of immigration-related fronts, and will include more biometric measures such as fingerprinting for entry and exit from the country. Though it’s not clear what all of those measures will be — we already have a pretty robust set of measures in place for screening — it’s clear that these measures will mean much more work for immigration staff and much longer wait times overall. The executive order does specifically call out interviews for every single visa applicant, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association has put out a pretty good summary list of other changes mentioned in the executive order:
o Uniform screening standards and procedures (such as in-person interviews);
o The creation of a database of identity documents;
o Amended application forms with questions “aimed at identifying fraudulent answers and malicious intent”;
o A mechanism to ensure that individuals are who they claim to be;
o A process to evaluate the person’s “likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society” and “ability to make contributions to the national interest”; and
o A mechanism to assess whether the applicant has the intent to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States.

Some reality-checking about these policies:

  • Refugee vetting is already very, very vigorous. The previous administration put out a very good infographic of exactly how the vetting process worked prior to this week, and I urge you to read it. I also recommend this ProPublica twitter thread, which provides many, many resources for understanding the general process.
  • The United States Refugee Admission Program is a humanitarian effort designed to help people fleeing unimaginable trauma and horrific circumstance. By definition, in order to qualify for the program, an applicant has to show credible fear for their personal safety in their home country. Refusing all admission for four months is tantamount to that moment in a horror movie when all the doors slam shut and lock themselves, leaving terrified victims trapped in the house to die. And since the rest of the executive order contextualizes this act as aimed at Muslim populations, that will have a very real impact on the radicalization of Islam on a national stage.
  • Many of the provisions limiting entry generally are very likely to be illegal. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has already filed a constitutional suit against this executive order, and complaints have also been filed by the ACLU and other immigration law organizations. These suits cite due process violation and equal protection violation. The New York Times also put out a decent article about why nationality-based discrimination of this magnitude may be illegal under prior legislation, which I recommend reading. Expect many, many organizations to challenge this executive order swiftly with the fury of a thousand suns. And on a related note…

Here’s how you can help advocate against these orders:

  • Now is an excellent time to donate to CAIR, the ACLU, and other immigration-based advocacy organizations. Both CAIR and the ACLU are poised to become embroiled in lengthy and expensive suits to defend people’s rights, and that means they will greatly benefit from both time and money.
  • Pay attention to local and national advocacy efforts. Many organizations are already leading efforts to educate and assist people experiencing immigration-based discrimination. As noted above, both CAIR and the ACLU have already brought suits about this executive order. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has also been putting out excellent press releases. The Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project has been putting forward a Know Your Rights initiative to educate people on the ground level, including topics like safe travel in their information. If you live in Massachusetts, like I do, the MIRA Coalition puts out regular news about immigration-related efforts and is a great place to find links helping people on day-to-day immigration issues. Mayor Walsh and Governor Baker have also put out some statements in the past week that indicate their general posture on the topic of sanctuary, giving us a clear picture of where and how advocacy may be next directed.
  • Consider assisting with protests and other on-the-ground efforts. Protests can be particularly dangerous for immigrant populations, because arrest can lead to deportation. This means that joining protests (such as the CAIR rally happening at Copley Square tomorrow) can be an excellent way to assist and show support, and also potentially can be a way to learn of other future efforts.
  • Stay informed about changes on the national stage. You’re already doing this one if you have gotten this far into this article, and I’m just going to take a moment to sincerely say: Yay for you! I encourage you to keep it up. It’s hard, but incredibly helpful, to know what is going on.

And that’s about all I got on this particular executive order, though I’m sure we’ll be hearing more in the weeks and months to come — and while I wish this were the last summary in this series, I know that it won’t be. Stay tuned for more awful, folks, and thank you for your diligence.