Trump’s facile claim that his refugee policy is similar to Obama’s in 2011
“My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.”
— President Trump, statement on executive order, Jan. 29, 2017
The Trump White House made a number of misleading statements in justifying its executive order denying entry into the United States for travelers from seven majorityMuslim countries.
For instance, President Trump and other officials initially tried to minimize the disruption by claiming that only 109 travelers were “detained” upon arrival. Officials later conceded that that figure reflected only the number of people flying to the United States when the order was signed.
State Department statistics indicate that the potential universe of people affected by the entry ban is much higher: 90,000. That’s how many people received either nonimmigrant or immigrant visas from the seven affected countries in fiscal 2015, the most recent data available. Even that number does not include potentially tens of thousands of people who are dual citizens, such as Dutch Iranians, who are also affected by the order. (On Friday, the State Department said it had calculated that the number of currently valid visas affected in the three-month period was about 60,000.)
As shown in the quote above, Trump also claimed that President Barack Obama did the same thing in 2011. But the comparison is rather facile.
Here’s what happened in 2011.
The only news report that we could find that referred to a sixmonth ban was a 2013 ABC News article that included this line: “As a result of the Kentucky case, the State Department stopped processing Iraq refugees for six months in 2011, federal officials told ABC News — even for many who had heroically helped U.S. forces as interpreters and intelligence assets.”
The “Kentucky case” refers to two Iraqis in Kentucky who in May 2011 were arrested and faced federal terrorism charges after officials discovered from an informant that Waad Ramadan Alwan, before he had been granted asylum in the United States, had constructed improvised roadside bombs in Iraq. The FBI, after examining fragments from thousands of bomb parts, found Alwan’s fingerprints on a cordless phone that had been wired to detonate an improvised bomb in 2005.
The arrests caused an uproar in Congress, and the Obama administration pledged to reexamine the records of 58,000 Iraqis who had been settled in the United States. The administration also imposed new, more extensive background checks on Iraqi refugees. Media reports at the time focused on how the new screening procedures had delayed visa approvals, even as the United States was preparing to end its involvement in the Iraq War.
“The enhanced screening procedures have caused a logjam in regular visa admissions from Iraq, even for those who risked their lives to aid American troops and who now fear reprisals as the Obama administration winds down the U.S. military presence,” the Baltimore Sun reported.
The Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. officials acknowledged delays but were trying to speed up the process. The newspaper quoted a senior official as saying the State Department’s National Visa Center has been ordered to flag special visa applications for expedited action.
At a September 2011 congressional hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano if a hold had been placed on Iraqi visa applications. Napolitano answered that all previous Iraqi refugees had been revetted, using databases across the government, and the same process was in place for new refugees.
“Now I don’t know if that equates to a hold, as you say, but I can say that having done the already resettled population moving forward, they will all be reviewed against those kinds of databases,” Napolitano said.
State Department records show there was a significant drop in refugee arrivals from Iraq in 2011. There were 18,251 in 2010, 6,339 in 2011 and 16,369 in 2012.
But former Obama administration officials deny that any actual ban on Iraqi refugee admissions was put in place under Obama.
Eric P. Schwartz, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration at the time, said Trump’s statement is false.
“President Obama never imposed a six-month ban on Iraqi processing,” said Schwartz, now dean of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “For several months in 2011, there was a lower level of Iraqi resettlement, as the government implemented certain security enhancements.” But, he said, “there was never a point during that period in which Iraqi resettlement was stopped, or banned.”
Jon Finer, another former official involved in the policy, said “there was not a single month in which no Iraqis arrived here.”
The Pinocchio Test
So what’s the difference with Trump’s action?
First, Obama responded to an actual threat — the discovery that two Iraqi refugees had been implicated in bombmaking in Iraq that had targeted U.S. troops. (Iraq, after all, was a war zone.) Under congressional pressure, officials decided to reexamine all previous refugees and impose new screening procedures, which led to a slowdown in processing new applications. Trump, by contrast, issued his executive order without any known triggering threat. (His staff has pointed to attacks unrelated to the countries named in his order.)
Second, Obama did not announce a ban on visa applications. There was certainly a lot of news reporting that visa applications had slowed to a trickle. But the Obama administration never said it had a policy to halt all applications. Indeed, it is clear that no ban was put in place. Even so, the delays did not go unnoticed, so there was critical news reporting at the time about the angst of Iraqis waiting for approval.
Third, Obama’s policy did not prevent all citizens of that country, including green-card holders, from traveling to the United States. Trump’s policy is much more sweeping, though after a weekend of negative publicity, officials pulled back from barring permanent U.S. residents.
In other words, under Obama, Iraqi refugee processing was slowed in response to a specific threat, but it was not halted. The Trump White House, meanwhile, failed to respond to requests to provide any evidence for the president’s claim.
Trump earns Three Pinocchios. More at washingtonpost.com/ news/fact-checker