The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected President Trump’s attempt to reinstate his executive order pausing refugee travel to the United States. I’ll leave the lawyering to the lawyers here, but it certainly seems to me like the decision was motivated less by a clear reading of the letter of the order and the law and, well, by a strong desire to foil the President out of a more general opposition to him and his governing agenda.
This won’t be the last we hear of the President’s intent to increase vetting of refugees and those traveling from terrorist-prone countries, though. President Trump’s team still has a few options before it. It may be drafting a new order right now that avoids some of the confusion of the first one, even if the administration has already clarified those confusing areas. The current order has also been criticized for the hasty way the order was signed on short notice, which seems to be the source of the troubling confusion.
No matter whether the current executive order remains and will be finally enforced, or if a new one is signed and implemented, it is still a useful exercise to understand the executive order’s purpose and some of its larger points because this issue isn’t going away for the next 4 years…at least. For the Christian, this issue has sparked debate and disagreement like few public policy questions have. This, I submit, has to do with a lack of understanding of the difference between the role of the government and the Church and how American Christians should think about what some Christian writers derisively calls “Americanism”. But more will be written on that specific topic later.
For now, let us turn to the executive order.
Even for the non-lawyer, a sober reading of the text reveals its intent is to protect American citizens against pressing threats; moreover, some of the criticism about the order is based on inaccurate or incomplete information.
One, the executive order states (emphasis is mine):
In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including "honor" killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.
The U.S. government has identified the very real threat from Islamist militants who seek to force the submission of anyone who does not subscribe to their brand of Islam. It is not “fear-mongering” to recall and remind others of the threat of Islamist militantism.
Christians, of all people, should not be unaware of or surprised by the gruesome and cruel nature of these Islamist militant attacks. We know the depths of mankind’s depravity. We know different ideas and worldviews can yield very different actions, portend varying degrees of good and evil. We are not moral relativists. Not all religions are equally good. Not all beliefs have an equal claim on the truth. Islamism, by which I mean Islam as a political and religious ideology, governs its citizens by Sharia (Islamic) law and is intolerant of religious expression, free speech, etc. Islamist militants take that intolerance to an especially grotesque, totalitarian, and violent conclusion through acts of torture and terrorism.
Beyond the immediate threat from Islamist militants, as the executive order states, is the long-term threat to the Constitutional government that keeps America the freest and safest nation the world has seen. Nations are such because of secure borders that define their geographic space, and they are also defined by the nature of their government and the culture of the people. The United States can cease to exist as we know it if the integrity of its borders is not maintained or if the nature of the government and culture of the people change. By “culture” what I do not mean is that everyone shares a love for baseball and apple pie, of course. What I mean is a shared respect for pluralism and the rule of American law—not Sharia law. It is true that our country has greatly benefited from immigration since its inception. It is equally true that from the time our country was founded the government has tried to carefully monitor who is entering our nation and to only admit those who are friendly towards Americans and America.
Two, the executive order temporarily halts the refugee program for 120 days, until the vetting process is up to the snuff according to the administration’s standards. Moreover, it places a temporary 90-day ban on people traveling from a list in a bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama of seven war-torn or otherwise terror-inclined Islamic nations (Syria, however, is banned indefinitely until an unknown time). The instability in those countries creates a fertile environment for them to meet, plan, train, recruit, and send off Islamist fighters. Security experts are concerned that there will be a wave of ISIS exports to Western nations by taking advantage of Western nations’ compassion and by exploiting their refugee programs.
Some experts continue to argue that the refugee screening process is so stringent it couldn’t possibly be improved. But senior Obama administration officials, including FBI Director James Comey, testified to Congress that Syria poses an especially unique challenge to screeners.
Three, even though the executive order does implement a pause on the refugee program, the United States is still taking in tens of thousands of refugees this year. The order caps the United States at 50,000 refugees, which is a high average for the United States over the last 15 years. It is simply not true that the United States is closing the doors to the world’s destitute. Thus, beware of the Statue of Liberty memes reminding us of the poetic words, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…“ They are emotive…but also imply an inaccurate characterization of what the United States, by way of the executive order, is. We are still a generous, compassionate nation.
Four, some have complained that because the order prioritizes “refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality,” once the refugee program resumes, it has a clear “anti-Muslim” and “pro-Christian” slant. But current refugee law already requires the consideration of religious persecution. As writer Andy McCarthy penned, “Under federal law, the executive branch is expressly required to take religion into account in determining who is granted asylum. Under the provision governing asylum (section 1158 of Title 8, U.S. Code), an alien applying for admission must establish that…religion [among other things]…was or will be at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant.”
Moreover, Muslims from Syria have been especially welcomed to the United States while other minority persecuted groups have had a very hard time coming to the United States. According the State Department website, only 125 Christians from Syria were admitted last year, out of the total 15,479, even though Christians make up 5 percent of the Syrian population. Additionally, Christians and other religious minorities in majority-Muslim countries have been victims of genocide. Former commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Nina Shea has outlined some of the hurdles persecuted Christians in Syria face that prevent them from even registering in the United Nations refugee system.
Last, expect to hear stories about individuals who certainly seem harmless to Americans and in some cases even helpful to Americans who are sadly prevented from finishing their expected sojourn to American soil. Remember, we don’t have all the relevant information about each one, and some, while seemingly harmless, might not be and could be sent back to the land from which they came. For those who are harmless, there is a waiver authority in the executive order to consider individuals on a case-by-case basis, and it has already been liberally applied.
In sum, yes, it could have been rolled out in a manner that was less shocking and smoother for all involved. But it is hardly the xenophobic, bigoted move that flies in the face of American ideals, or for that matter, Christian charity. As I said above, there is more to come on that last point.