Reversal on Green-Card Holders Highlights Casual Cruelty of Trump's Immigration Order

The president tramples innocent people in his rush to fulfill an ill-advised campaign promise.


NBC News

The most revealing thing about the executive order that President Trump signed on Friday, which suspended admission of all refugees for 120 days, blocked Syrian refugees indefinitely, and banned travelers with passports from any of seven Muslim-majority countries, is how casually he hurt innocent people to score political points. Over the weekend, hundreds of people who had permission to enter the United States as students, researchers, tourists, refugees, immigrants, and legal permanent residents were stopped from boarding their flights or detained after arriving at U.S. airports because of the new restrictions. Thousands more were left in limbo, their plans to move, visit children or ailing parents, take a job, or attend school suddenly canceled or on hold, all based on one man's whim. The Trump administration's shifting position on the order's implications for legal permanent residents from the seven designated countries shows how little thought went into a policy that has upended and endangered so many lives.

Trump's executive order bars entry, except with special permission, of all "aliens" from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The New York Times, citing "two American officials," reports that Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly "had suggested green card holders be exempted from the order," but presidential advisers Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller "overruled him." Hence legal permanent residents, including at least a few who were on the verge of becoming American citizens, were among the travelers who were stopped from flying to the U.S. or detained after arriving. By Sunday criticism of that policy had prompted an embarrassing reversal. "The order is not affecting green card holders moving forward," Trump's chief of staff, Reince Priebus, announced on Meet the Press yesterday. Also on Sunday, Secretary Kelly issued this statement:

In applying the provisions of the president's executive order, I hereby deem the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest.

Accordingly, absent the receipt of significant derogatory information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare, lawful permanent resident status will be a dispositive factor in our case-by-case determinations.

Whether legal permanent residents were covered by Trump's ban was no small detail, since they include half a million people who would either be stranded abroad or forced to remain in the United States for the next three months. Furthermore, excluding green-card holders is more legally problematic than excluding refugees or visitors, and it was especially controversial among critics of the order, including members of Trump's party. "It's unacceptable when even legal permanent residents are being detained or turned away at airports and ports of entry," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said on Saturday. Yesterday Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) agreed. "This vetting proposal itself needed more vetting," he said in a press release. "More scrutiny of those traveling from war-torn countries to the United States is wise. But this broad and confusing order seems to ban legal, permanent residents with 'green cards,' and might turn away Iraqis, for example, who were translators and helped save lives of Americans troops and who could be killed if they stay in Iraq."

Since Trump's avowed aim is preventing terrorist attacks in the United States by improving the vetting of foreign visitors, including legal permanent residents in the order never made much sense, given the formidable process required to obtain a green card. It is also hard to justify the ban on refugees, who undergo a rigorous screening process that takes up to two years. That process seems to work pretty well. Cato Institute immigration policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh calculates that "the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year."

The security rationale for picking the seven countries covered by Trump's order is rather hazy as well. "Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," the Times notes, citing University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman, "no one has been killed in the United States in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from or whose parents emigrated from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen." Most of the 9/11 perpetrators (15 of 19) came from Saudi Arabia, while the rest were from Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. None of those countries is covered by Trump's order.

"The reason we chose those seven countries was those were the seven countries that both the Congress and the Obama administration identified as being the seven countries that were most identifiable with dangerous terrorism taking place in their country," Priebus said on Face the Nation yesterday. "Now, you can point to other countries that have similar problems, like Pakistan and others. Perhaps we need to take it further."

As to why Trump's half-baked plan had to take effect immediately, interrupting hundreds of journeys that had already begun, Priebus said terrorists might have taken advantage of any delay. "Some people have suggested [that] maybe we should have given everyone a three-day warning," he said. "But that would just mean that a terrorist would just move up their travel plans by three days." Taking Priebus at his word, that theoretical risk of a very low-probability event outweighed the certain chaos that would be caused by imposing the restrictions without warning.

The chaos was compounded by a lack of consultation and training. Trump signed the order in the middle of a briefing explaining it to Kelly, head of the department charged with carrying it out. "Customs and border control [CBP] officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday," the Times reports, "and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president's orders." The ACLU complaint that led to a federal judge's order blocking the removal of detained travelers, which was filed on behalf of two Iraqi men who were granted visas based on work for the U.S. military, suggests the extent of the confusion. The complaint says that when lawyers for the men asked CBP agents who could explain the new policy, the response was, "Call Mr. Trump."

Priebus argues that Trump erred on the side of caution by taking swift action to prevent terrorism. "President Trump is not willing to take chances on this subject," he said on Face the Nation. But that stance means Trump is willing to cause wide, predictable, and potentially lethal damage in exchange for security benefits that are speculative and possibly nonexistent. The questionable logic and haphazard implementation of his order reflect a disregard for the people he might trample in his rush to fulfill an impulsive campaign promise.