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Opinion | James Stavridis

President Trump’s immigration order tests the nation’s principles

Demonstrators marched in Washington Sunday to protest President Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees.
Demonstrators marched in Washington Sunday to protest President Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees.Zach Gibson/Getty Images/Getty Images

In that lovely and atmospheric 1973 Oscar award-winning movie about the present and the past, “The Way We Were,” there is a powerful exchange between the two principal characters, Hubbell Gardner (played by Robert Redford) and Katie Morosky (portrayed by Barbra Streisand). Hubbell says, “People are more important than their principles,” but Katie counters tellingly with: “People are their principles.”

As we contemplate the executive orders issued by the Trump administration over the weekend, we need to ask ourselves simply: Are we our principles? I hope so. I think so.

Let me begin by giving the benefit of the doubt to President Donald Trump. I hope his intentions are to keep us safe, to ensure that we only admit people to our nation who want to be here for the right reasons — to join in this union, work hard to better themselves, create productive outcomes, and join in the occasionally uncertain but fundamentally just trajectory of this most unique of countries. I agree we should vet people coming here carefully (which I believe we have been doing), and use common sense and sophisticated intelligence and technology to ensure we make good decisions about who is allowed to come here.

And I am a deep admirer of General John Kelly, a retired Marine four-star officer, whom I have known for over four decades, since we served together on an aircraft carrier in the early 1980s. There is no finer person than John Kelly, and we are lucky to have him as the secretary of Homeland Security, charged with our security.


And yet . . . I am deeply disturbed by the general tone and thrust of the executive orders that, at least on initial read, seem to ban significant classes of people because of their religion, or prioritize one religion over another. I do not agree with decisions that simply close off any migration here from a particular nation, no matter the situation or background of the individual applying for a visa or refugee status. I am confused about what appears to restrict or at least subject to “extreme vetting” (whatever that may be) people who already hold green cards, worked honorably for the United States military (like my interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq), have already been through two years of vetting, are students at US universities like Tufts, where I am a dean, or hold valid documents to enter the United States.


I do not understand the arbitrary selection of some Muslim-majority nations but not others to face the consequences of this executive order, nor the rationale for a 90- or 120-day time period. I cannot support a policy that simply relieves us of our obligations under international law to respect the right of refugees to apply for asylum arbitrarily.

It all appears to be an attempt to fulfill a campaign promise without sufficient thought to second order consequences, ill-staffed by an administration that does not as yet have a strong team in place, and shot through with an undercurrent of loathing for the Muslim world. That hurts us, and we will reap what we sow over time. As the old saying goes, “to every problem there is a solution: easy, quick, and wrong.” This is a classic example of “ready, fire, aim.”

Three principal objections leap out at me to these executive orders. The first is that the executive order does not comply broadly with international laws that require civilized nations to respect the right of legitimate refugees to have a free and fair hearing as to the circumstances of their situation before being rejected for entry. International law is shaped by custom and tradition, international treaties to which we subscribe, and our shared sense of values as an international community. Do we really want to be the nation that watches Germany (with one-fourth our population) take in more than a million refugees, in accordance with international law, while we say no and close our borders to those in need? Do we want to stand outside of international law in that way?


The second concern goes beyond the measured and logical words of the law. It is about our values and who we think we are as a people and as a nation. I understand that we must control our borders, and that no non-US citizen enjoys a right to come here. But are we not in the end the sum of our principles? Do we not believe in compassion, justice, and doing all we can to make the world a place where, as Marin Luther King said, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice? These executive orders do damage to that ideal.

Third, and pragmatically, we should recognize the benefits of taking in these refugees. The vast majority are risk-taking, determined, creative thinkers who will over time give us a high return on investment. It takes enormous courage and endurance to take your 4-year-old son’s hand, put your 2-year-old daughter on your back, smile encouragingly at your wife, and walk a thousand kilometers across Syria to a refugee center in Turkey. I want that person on my team.


Certainly, there are risks. In the slipstream of refugees and visa returnees and amidst all the confusion, a few bad actors will slip in. But as we have seen over the last decade it is impossible to predict where the next terrorist attack will come from; and the overall damage we do to our reputation in the world is simply not worth the small incremental increase in our security.

There are hard calls, and I respect the challenges faced by the president and his team as they try to wrestle with them. But this set of executive orders stands in violation of international and treaty law, is poor policy, and fails the common sense check. It hurts us a nation, and places us on the wrong side of our principles. Let’s admit we are on the wrong course, and adjust accordingly before more damage is done.

Admiral James Stavridis is dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and was vetted to be vice president by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and interviewed for a cabinet post by President Donald Trump.