Politics & Government

Restricting refugee access to the United States didn’t start with Trump

Trump signs "extreme vetting" executive action tightening restrictions for refugees

President Donald Trump signed and executive action at the Pentagon on Friday, tightening the United States' refugee and visa policies.
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President Donald Trump signed and executive action at the Pentagon on Friday, tightening the United States' refugee and visa policies.

President Donald Trump signed an executive action Friday that will halt the refugee admissions program for 120 days on the grounds that the people entering the U.S. are a national security risk. People fleeing the civil war in Syria are barred indefinitely.

He said the measures were designed to “keep radial Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America.”

“We don’t want ‘em here,” Trump said at the signing.

Trump made harsh rhetoric about immigrants and refugees a hallmark of his divisive presidential campaign, arguing forcefully that admissions to the U.S. should be halted until terrorism ceases. Following a terrorist attack in San Bernardino in 2015 that killed 14 people, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Just before that attack, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill to stop all Syrian refugee resettlement. The legislation was spurred by the terrorist attacks in Paris that left more than 130 people dead, but it did not gain support in the Senate and was not made law.

While perpetrators of terrorist attacks on American soil have been Muslim, none entered the U.S. as a refugee. But this is not the first time in the U.S.’ history that national security fears have led to restrictions on the refugee program.

September 11th also brought worries that refugees posed a threat and could use the resettlement program to enter the country to carry out further attacks. President George W. Bush visited a mosque six days after the terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and warmed against equating Islam with terrorism. But despite his pronouncement that “Islam is peace,” refugee admissions were frozen for more than two months as the U.S. government reviewed the program.

None of the 9/11 attackers entered the country through the refugee program. But Kristin Wells, who was a counsel on the House Judiciary Committee covering immigration and refugee policy in the wake of the attacks, said support for the refugee resettlement program has always depended on the national security factors at play.

“After 9/11, the numbers dropped off and Democrats pushed very strongly to keep the refugee program open ... It didn’t close, but a lot of the screenings overseas stopped,” said Wells, who is now government relations director at CARE USA. “A lot of people who might as well have been approved were not approved or were held up. For years to come the refugees didn’t meet the number the president said he’d bring in.”

The U.S. tradition of resettlement began after World War II and swelled as a result of the Vietnam War. The U.S. admitted the most refugees in a single year in 1980, resettling 207,116 people. That year, Congress realized the U.S. needed a standardized procedure for refugee resettlement and it passed the Refugee Act of 1980. It has dictated the process to identify, screen and resettle the world’s most vulnerable people, which over the years have included those fleeing Communist regimes and civil wars. The program has typically gotten strong bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans, and each year the president sets the number of people to be admitted as refugees.

Kathleen Newland, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said that following 9/11, more scrutiny was also given to countries where there was an al-Qaeda presence.

“The impact was pretty immediate and pretty dramatic,” Newland said. “But the program was fairly slow to build back up. It took six or seven years before the numbers came back up to the pre-9/11 level and then slowly increased from that under the Obama administration up to 85,000 last year.”

She said the ramped up security protocols helped convince people that admitting refugees would not pose a threat. Refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S. undergo the most thorough vetting process of any class of traveler to the U.S., which includes in person interviews and heath screenings.

“There was a pretty immediate jump to identifying the resettlement program with [national security] concerns, so history repeating itself on that front,” Newland said. “No resettled refugee in the United States has ever perpetrated a terrorist attack, so it’s a misplaced concern.”

The exact text of Trump’s executive action was not released immediately, but it is also expected to stop travel from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan, Muslim-majority countries the Trump administration has deemed a threat to national security. People will not be admitted unless they undergo what the White House is calling “extreme vetting,” the specifics of which are not clear.