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OPINION | Madeleine K. Albright

Travel ban creates a religious preference in our immigration system

Globe Staff

For years, I have taught a course on the national security decision-making process at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Drawing upon my time on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department, I try to help my students understand how foreign policy gets made, and why a good decision-making process is essential in order to get good policy.

In class this week, my students wanted to know how President Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees had come to pass. I tried to be fair, but the truth is there does not seem to have been a decision-making process at all.


By most accounts, the order was not vetted by the cabinet agencies charged with carrying it out. It does not appear as though career national security officials within our government had any input as it was being crafted. Important questions on how it would be implemented were not thought through in advance, and there is still an alarming lack of clarity for thousands of visa-holders who are affected and, in many cases, stranded abroad.

In developing and issuing this order, the Trump White House ignored the most basic processes of governing. The result was chaos, and the implications for our country are grave.

By slamming the door shut on those fleeing violence and persecution, including people who took great risks by working on behalf of the US military, the order represents a stark departure from core American values. Despite what the administration says, the order effectively creates a religious preference in our immigration system and is deeply biased against Muslims — undermining the principles of religious freedom upon which our country was founded. As a refugee who rose to serve in one of the highest offices in the land, I consider it a repudiation of everything that America represents.


We should not be under the illusion that this policy will make us safer. Immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries are banned, but there have been no fatal terror attacks in the United States carried out by visa holders from any of those places. The refugee program is paused, and Syrian refugee admissions are indefinitely suspended, but there have been no fatal terrorist attacks by refugees in the nearly 40 years since the modern system of screening and vetting was established. In reality, refugee processing typically takes 18 to 24 months, leveraging the full capabilities of our law enforcement and intelligence communities. These are facts that our government experts could have pointed out to administration officials, had they been consulted beforehand.

Ironically, it is the national security professionals across our government who will now have to deal with the unintended consequences of this policy. Our partners in the Middle East have already objected to the approach, which many of them see as motivated by anti-Muslim bias. As a group of dissenting State Department officials wrote in objection to the policy, “by alienating them, we lose access to the intelligence and resources needed to fight the root causes of terror abroad, before an attack occurs within our borders.”

The policy will also unleash anti-American sentiment and put our troops at risk. We have thousands of service members stationed in Iraq, one of the countries whose citizens are now banned from the United States. Our military’s ability to perform its job depends on good relations with the Iraqi government, which have now needlessly been thrown into chaos.


Moreover, President Trump has made the job of our counterterrorism professionals much more difficult. ISIS has already called Trump’s policy a “blessed ban,” arguing that it fulfills their prediction that the West would eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.

Anyone who cares about our nation’s security should be very worried about how this policy was conceived and implemented. But we should worry even more about what might come next. That’s because over the weekend, the president signed another executive order giving Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and one of the main drivers of this policy, a seat on the National Security Council’s Principals Committee. That same order also diminished the role of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With these unprecedented changes, President Trump has signaled that decisions on national security will be made based on extreme ideology, and not our national interest.

For those who hoped that Trump’s generally strong national security cabinet picks might lead him to moderate his course, the past week has been disheartening. But in my course on national security decision-making, I teach my students one lesson that the Trump administration will soon learn — successful policies need the support of our other two coequal branches of government. The emergency stays issued by multiple judges over the weekend are a reminder of the important checks and balances built into our system.


It is now incumbent on Congress to act, and those citizens who are appalled by this policy should demand that it do so. Trump’s firing of the acting attorney general, coupled with his press secretary’s attack on state department employees who registered their concerns, illustrates clearly that there will be no room for dissent in this administration. Congress must force the president to rescind this ill-conceived and poorly executed policy, before he does more damage to our national security. By suffering such a rebuke early on in his presidency, my hope is that President Trump will learn about the consequences of bad decision-making. But if not, he’s always welcome in my class.

Madeleine K. Albright served as the 64th US secretary of state and is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.