THE EXECUTIVE ORDER ON IMMIGRATION SIGNED BY PRESIDENT TRUMP in January has caused consternation, controversy and a legal battle that has pitted the White House against the judiciary and may be headed to the Supreme Court. Amid the tumult, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) hosted experts in homeland security, international relations and constitutional law to dissect the controversial measure and analyze its value as policy, its global implications, its implementation and its morality.

“Who do we admit as visitors to the United States? Who do we admit as immigrants to the United States? Who do we admit as refugees to the United States?” asked panel moderator R. Nicholas Burns, Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of International Diplomacy at HKS, as he framed the debate.

The order, issued Jan. 28, suspended all refugee admissions for four months, cut the amount of refugee admissions into the U.S. by more than half (from 110,000 to 50,000), and blocked all refugees from Syria indefinitely. Perhaps most controversially, it suspended all visitors of any kind from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Lybia, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

The order affected tens of thousands of travelers and caused widespread protests at airports and cities around the country. A federal judge in Washington State blocked the order, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court last week. 

JFK Jr. Forum: Perspectives on the Trump Executive Order on Immigration

With about 800,000 refugees taken in by the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, and a vetting process for refugees that takes two to three years, was it correct to ask whether the system was broken, as Trump argued?

“Since 9/11, there has not been anything involving air travel, cargo, passengers, passports with biometric information—there hasn’t been any program that hasn’t been rethought, changed, tweaked, improved upon,” said Gil Kerlikowske, former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and a Spring 2017 fellow at the Institute of Politics. “It’s pretty unclear to me that something is broken.”

Terrorist tactics have evolved since the spectacularly destructive attacks by al-Qaeda, said David French, contributor to the National Review, constitutional law expert and a veteran of the Iraq War. ISIS’ recent strategy has been to carry out small attacks, inspire copycats and infiltrate other countries. The number of terrorist plots that have been executed or disrupted has nearly doubled in the past several years.

“Given that reality, I thought it was entirely prudent for the Trump administration, in an escalating threat environment, to hit a pause button,” French argued. But this was a complicated issue, he added, and immigration policy is not a solution for it. 

Does policy minimize risk? Does it maximize America’s defense? Does it maintain our spirit as a nation? These are the criteria through which Juliette Kayyem, HKS lecturer and former state and federal homeland security official, views the success of security policies. “By those criteria, the executive order doesn’t pass the test,” Kayyem said. The reality of the American situation is that terror here tends to be homegrown and not imported via returning jihadists, she said. One of the biggest problems with the order, she added, was the damage it could do to the relationship between the U.S. and its domestic Muslim community, as well as harming U.S. relations with Muslim-majority countries.

“The last two administrations, Republican and Democrat, have spent a lot of time ensuring that even the most draconian of counterterrorism efforts were not perceived as a war against a religion,” Kayyem said. “And the carve-out in this executive order for minorities in majority states, let alone what Trump has said and what [former New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani has said, makes it hard to maintain that narrative.”

Moshik Temkin, associate professor of public policy at HKS and co-director of the Harvard Initiative on History and Public Policy, said he was unconvinced by the security underpinnings of the order. “There’s always been a correlation between security fears—genuine security fears having to do with things that happened—and a more overall general perception of a danger that a particular group of people from particular origins represent,” he said.

“It seems to me there is a particular worldview here regarding Muslims,” Temkin said. “It’s not that all Muslims are going to be banned: it’s Muslims that may be in need, Muslims that are in crisis.”

Burns, former deputy Secretary of State and faculty chair for the HKS program on the Middle East, said that regardless of the value of the policy and its implementation, it was “objectively true that the image and credibility of the United States has been fundamentally impaired by this decision.” He closed the discussion by citing a line from the musical Hamilton – “Immigrants, we get the job done.” Burns also argued that “the glory of this country is our immigrant and refugee base.”

The Forum, held on Feb. 3, was co-sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

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Juliette Kayyem Photo

Juliette Kayyem

Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security

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