President Donald Trump defended his sweeping immigration policy by calling it “similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.” That’s a faulty comparison.
There was a delay in processing Iraqi refugees in 2011 after it was discovered that two Iraqi refugees living in Kentucky had been involved in roadside bombing attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. One of the refugee’s fingerprints were found on a detonation device in Iraq, prompting U.S. immigration, security and intelligence agencies to use federal databases to rescreen about 58,000 Iraqi refugees in the U.S. and more than 25,000 Iraqis who had been approved to enter the U.S., but had not yet been admitted, Department of Homeland Security officials testified at the time.
The Kentucky case not only caused a backlog in processing Iraqi refugees in 2011, but it also resulted in an overhaul of the refugee screening process.
The Obama administration’s actions were limited to one country and in response to a specific threat — the potential for other Iraqi refugees to take advantage of a flaw in the screening process.
By contrast, Trump ordered a far wider ban — albeit also temporary — without identifying a specific threat.
President Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 27 that bars Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. indefinitely and bars all other refugees for 120 days, and keeps out visitors for 90 days from seven predominately Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Initially, as ABC News reported, administration officials said the ban also applied to U.S. green card holders reentering the United States from those seven countries, though they could get a waiver to reenter. But two days after Trump signed the executive order, administration officials said green card holders, who are permanent residents, would be admitted on a case-by-case basis after additional security screening.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a statement that “lawful permanent resident status will be a dispositive factor in our case-by-case determinations.”
The order caused confusion at the nation’s airports over the weekend as refugees, legal visa holders and visitors affected by the new policy were detained and some even sent back to their home countries. Democrats and some Republicans criticized the Republican president for overreaching his authority and jeopardizing Muslim relations in the fight against terrorism.
A day after Trump signed the order, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union won a temporary stay in federal court to allow those already in the U.S., or en route to the U.S., to remain in the country.
As a candidate, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” But, in response to criticism of his executive order, Trump issued a Jan. 29 statement accusing the media of “falsely reporting” that it is a “Muslim ban.” Trump said his policy is “not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”
Trump also drew comparisons to the Obama administration’s action on Iraqi refugees.
Trump, Jan. 29: My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.
But what Obama did was not a ban, and it did not involve visas.
Trump and the White House did not elaborate on the 2011 reference, but the conservative Breitbart website posted a story the same day with the headline, “Flashback: Obama Suspended Iraq Refugee Program for Six Months Over Terrorism Fears in 2011.” Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is the former executive chairman of Breitbart.
Breitbart, Jan. 29: In 2013, ABC News first revealed that two years earlier, the State Department had imposed a freeze over the processing of Iraqi refugees for six months. The halt was the result of the discovery of two al-Qaida members admitted as refugees from Iraq who were living in Bowling Green, Kentucky and who had admitted to targeting U.S. troops in Iraq.
That is an accurate summary of the ABC News article.
Iraqi refugees Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi settled in Kentucky after entering the U.S. in 2009. Alwan entered the U.S. in April of that year and Hammadi in July, according to the federal indictment.
Alwan was involved in planting and detonating IEDs against U.S. troops in Iraq from approximately 2003 to 2006, the Department of Justice said. ABC News reported that the FBI opened an investigation after receiving an intelligence tip that led them to Alwan, who then led investigators to Hammadi.
Alwan “had claimed to be a refugee who faced persecution back home — a story that shattered when the FBI found his fingerprints on a cordless phone base that U.S. soldiers dug up in a gravel pile south of Bayji, Iraq on Sept. 1, 2005,” ABC News wrote. “The phone base had been wired to unexploded bombs buried in a nearby road.”
The FBI set up a sting operation that led to the conviction of both Iraqi refugees on several charges, including attempting to provide support to terrorists in Iraq. The men were sentenced in January 2013.
“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,” ABC News reported.
The case also “prompted the bureau to assign hundreds of specialists to an around-the-clock effort aimed at checking its archive of 100,000 improvised explosive devices collected in the war zones, known as IEDs, for other suspected terrorists’ fingerprints,” ABC News reported.
ABC News, Nov. 20, 2013: “We are currently supporting dozens of current counter-terrorism investigations like that,” FBI Agent Gregory Carl, director of the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC), said in an ABC News interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC News’ “World News with Diane Sawyer” and “Nightline”.
At a congressional hearing on Sept. 13, 2011, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the Kentucky case resulted in an overhaul of the screening process.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said more than 58,000 Iraqi refugees had been admitted to the United States (since 2007), but more than 25,000 Iraqis at the time had been approved but not yet admitted and resettled. Collins asked Napolitano “is there a hold on that population until they can be more stringently vetted to ensure that we’re not letting into this country people who would do us harm?”
Napolitano would not use the word “hold,” but explained that tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees already in the U.S. had to be rescreened and Iraqi citizens in the future would undergo a tougher screening process.
Napolitano, Sept. 13, 2011: Yup. Let me, if I might, answer your question in two parts. First part, with respect to the 56, 57,000 who were resettled pursuant to the original resettlement program, they have now all been revetted against all of the DHS databases, all of the NCTC [National Counter Terrorism Center] databases and the Department of Defense’s biometric databases and so that work has now been done and focused.
Collins: That’s completed?
Napolitano: That is completed. Moving forward, no one will be resettled without going through the same sort of vet. 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.
On July 13, 2011, Rand Beers, under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, testified at a Senate hearing that it had rescreened about 58,000 Iraqi refugees already living in the United States, but the rescreening process had caused a backlog. Beers said that “it was not an easy process because it required some database adjustments and interactions that we had not even tried before.”
At a congressional hearing on Jan. 7, 2014, a homeland security official said the screening process was strengthened as a result of the Kentucky case.
“Following the May 2011 arrest of Mohanad Hammadi and Waad Ramadan Alwan in Kentucky, DHS and DOS have worked closely with the Intelligence and Law Enforcement communities to enhance our screening regime for refugee resettlement applicants,” Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Molly Groom said.
“While the exact details of these new checks are classified, we are prepared to provide a classified briefing to members should there be interest in this information,” Groom said. “While no screening is infallible, we believe that current screening systems to vet refugee applicants are more likely today to detect individuals with derogatory information should they apply.”
The new screening process for Iraqi refugees in 2011 reduced the number of Iraqi refugees admitted that year.
In calendar year 2011, the U.S. admitted only 6,339 Iraqi refugees — down from 18,251 in 2010, according to the State Department’s refugee admissions database. The number of Iraqi refugees jumped to 16,369 in 2012 after the screening systems were changed.
Trump’s comparison of his immigration actions to Obama’s policy in 2011 is a faulty one. The fact is that the Obama administration was responding to a known and specific threat from one country and limited its response to refugees from that country, while Trump’s order temporarily bans refugees from all countries — indefinitely in the case of those from Syria — and temporarily bars all other visitors from seven predominately Muslim countries.