How Obama Caused the Trump Refugee Debacle
By Ira Stoll | January 29, 2017, 20:45 EDT
President Donald Trump is being widely (even by Dick Cheney) and at least in part justifiably criticized and condemned for his crackdown on the admission to America of refugees from certain foreign countries.
If the goal is to make Americans safe from radical Islamic terrorism, the ban, it is argued by Trump’s critics, will be counterproductive. Preventing the entry to America of Muslims or Arabs who served as translators or drivers for American soldiers in wartime will make it harder for America to get local Arabs or Muslims to take risks to help us in the future. Failing to distinguish between already-vetted Green Card holders and newly arriving refugees is a stab in the back to those who were already well on their way to integrating and may even have American citizen children. And the lack of immediate explanation and clear communication about which countries were listed left Trump vulnerable to unfounded accusations that some nations, such as Saudi Arabia, were left off the list for reasons related to his real estate business, rather than American law.
Regardless of whether you think the temporary ban was a good idea or a bad idea, or a good idea poorly executed and poorly communicated, one point that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves is that, while Mr. Trump mis-stepped here, the groundwork for it was put in place significantly by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
After all, why are there Syrian refugees in the first place? One significant factor is that, after President Obama declared in an August 2012 press conference that Syria using chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” the Syrians used chemical weapons, and America let Bashar Assad get away with it. Part of the blame lies with the Republican Congress for refusing Mr. Obama’s request to authorize the use of military force. But part of it is that Mr. Obama himself was unwilling to back up his red line, or any other Syria-related negotiating position, with a credible threat of military force. Partly as a result, the situation deteriorated to the point where, in 2016, even Secretary of State John Kerry declared a genocide.
In other words, it’s great that all these protesters at American airports and urban parks are now citing the Holocaust and St. Louis precedent to justify America welcoming refugees rather than turning them away. But where were they during the last four years when these Syrians weren’t just getting held up at American airports, but getting gassed by Bashar Assad or raped and beheaded by ISIS? The intensity of the protest of the refugee order, compared with the relative silence when it came to the actual genocide and chemical weapons use, is almost enough to make one wonder whether the protest is less about concern for the actual welfare of Syrians or Iraqis, and more about political animus toward Trump.
In addition, it was Mr. Obama’s action on DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — that set the dangerous precedent that American immigration policy would be set by presidential fiat rather than by the normal rule of law. Mr. Obama tried and failed to get the Dream Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors — through Congress. When he could not get Congress to act, he went ahead and unilaterally changed the immigration rules on his own.
That helped lots of immigrants at the time, but it also had the unfortunate consequence of sending the message that the president could change immigration enforcement unilaterally, without going through Congress.
If Mr. Trump’s refugee time-out had been done through Congress rather than as an executive order, at least there would have been hearings and debate and an iterative process by which amendments could have been considered, the details of the policy might have been improved and clarified, critics could have voiced their objections, and everyone could have gotten a clearer idea of what was happening. Instead of going to Congress for legislation, Mr. Trump followed Mr. Obama’s footsteps. Mr. Trump, like Mr. Obama, sidestepped the House and Senate, and instead made a significant adjustment to immigration law by executive order. I understand one can make a legal argument that both presidents had the authority under existing law to act unilaterally. But as a political and practical matter, they’d both have been on far stronger ground had they gone through Congress rather than around it.
Nor were Mr. Obama’s unilateral executive actions on immigration limited to those, like DACA, that adjusted the immigration rules to make them more permissive. In two other cases, Mr. Obama acted to slam the door shut.
One instance was Haiti. On September 24, 2016, the New York Times reported on its front page: “The unexpected change sowed deep disappointment and confusion among the hundreds of Haitians at the border who thought they were only days away from entering the United States. Thousands more are still on their way, risking their lives on a perilous trip, probably in vain.”
Another was Cuba. The New York Times reported on its front page on January 23, 2017: “More than 1,000 Cuban migrants who endured monthslong treks across as many as 10 countries to reach the United States are marooned in Mexico, halted by the Obama administration’s decision this month to end special immigration privileges for Cubans who make it to the American border.”
Rather than condemning that change, the New York Times issued an editorial applauding it, explaining that the longstanding policy of admitting Cubans to America had contributed to a “brain drain,” depriving Cuba of educated professionals. The lack of such concern about “brain drain” when it comes to Iraqi or Syrian refugees again raises the possibility that the current outcry relates not to the question of welcoming refugees, but to people’s feeling about Mr. Trump. Especially since Haitians and Cubans haven’t been setting off bombs at sporting events or hijacking American airliners and flying them into buildings.
Mr. Obama also stopped processing Iraqi refugees for six months in 2011.
Mr. Obama’s missteps don’t absolve President Trump of responsibility for his handling of the matter, any more than George W. Bush’s misplaying of the economy, or of Iraq, absolved Mr. Obama of responsibility for his own record. But they are a part of the story that’s worth remembering, too, both for an explanation of how we got here and for some perspective and context on the current uproar.