Trump’s Executive Orders on Migration and Security: Policy Incompetence, Political Theater or Ideological Pivot?

Fiona Adamson
Senior Lecturer in International Relations
SOAS University of London

Credit: Christopher Penler / Shutterstock, Inc.

Trump’s Executive Orders on Migration and Security: Policy Incompetence, Political Theater or Ideological Pivot?

The first week of the new Trump administration was a turbulent one, marked by a flurry of Presidential Executive Orders, Memoranda and Proclamations. Three of the Executive Orders focused on issues of migration and security, and have attracted much media coverage as well as widespread protests. On Wednesday January 25th President Trump signed the Executive Order on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvement and the Executive Order on Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States. On Friday January 27th, he signed the Executive Order on Protecting the Nation From Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.

The first two Executive Orders lay out a range of provisions including the construction of a wall on the southern border of the United States; the expansion of detention facilities for undocumented migrants; accelerated processes of apprehension and removal for irregular migrants; and pressure on so-called “sanctuary cities.” They also include a number of provisions that strip non-citizens of privacy rights, set up a new “Office for Victims of Crimes Committed by Removable Aliens,” compel local officials and agencies to act as federal immigration officials, and require government agencies to publish weekly reports of crimes committed by non-citizens. The Executive Order on Terrorism – which received far-reaching and global attention – included a suspension for 120 days of the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP); a halt to the settlement of refugees from Syria; the use of religious criteria for vetting and refugee admissions; and a 90 day ban on entry to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – which originally applied to dual citizens and legal permanent residents (green card holders) – a provision which was later walked back.

Taken together, the Executive Orders contain sweeping proposals that cover a range of issues relating to migration and security. Much has already been written about the detrimental effects of these Executive Orders on individuals, local communities and vulnerable populations in the United States, the multiple legal and bureaucratic obstacles they face in being implemented, and their potentially negative effects on the US economy, national security and international reputation. The Executive Order halting refugee resettlement and banning entry into the United States has also set off alarm bells as it indicates the new administration’s willingness to introduce religious biases into entry, migration and refugee resettlement decisions.

The Executive Orders have been pitched by the administration as fulfilling Trump’s campaign promise of “making America safe again” and significant portions of the US electorate will see them in this light. Trump received the highest levels of support from those who viewed immigration and terrorism to be the most important issues facing the country and many of his supporters have viewed the Executive Orders in a positive light and as an indication of Trump making good on his campaign promises. Indeed, more Americans appear to support the entry ban than oppose it, with 82% of Republicans registering support.

The Trump campaign spent months promoting a message that the United States was weak on migration, border control and security. He returned to this theme in his inaugural speech and it has carried forward into the new administration. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) response to the legal challenges against the Executive Order defended them as “re-establishing control over America’s borders and national security.” When the administration took the worrisome step of firing the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, for calling into question the legal basis of the Executive Orders, it issued a statement calling her “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration” saying “it is time to get serious about protecting our country.” This language suggests that the Executive Orders are designed as needed policy responses to an existing problem. This simply does not fit the facts on the ground, however, and suggests that the Executive Orders are not primarily about addressing a policy gap, but have broader political motives.

Executive Orders as Policy

The Executive Orders will be perceived by many members of the public as a policy response designed to address an existing problem. Most Americans do not have the time to study the complexities of existing migration policy and will thus rely on media sources to form their views. Many will see the Executive Orders as faithfully introducing new policies designed to “make America safe again.”

If the Executive Orders are taken at face value, however, what strikes one immediately is their lack of understanding of existing United States policy on migration, border control and refugee admissions. The Executive Order on Border Security, for example, begins by claiming that there has been a “surge of illegal immigration at the southern border with Mexico.” However, there has actually been a steady decrease in irregular migration from Mexico over the past fifteen years, due to a combination of enhanced border control and improvements in the Mexican economy. Similarly, the Executive Order calls for an immediate construction of a physical barrier on the US-Mexican border, yet makes no mention of the fact that there is already a fence along the US southern border which is hundreds of miles long, covering high-density areas of the border. Building a wall would thus involve spending billions of dollars on areas of the border that are in fact highly inaccessible and dangerous to cross, bringing no clear immigration control benefit. The Executive Order on Border Control also calls for hiring 5,000 new Border Control Officers. Yet a November 2016 Cato Institute Report found that there is currently a surplus of Border Control Agents, concluding that many of them “have little to do.”

The Executive Orders also propose costly measures to increase immigration enforcement, detention and deportation. This suggests that the drafters of the Executive Orders are unaware that the number of undocumented migrants in the US is not on the rise, but has actually decreased under Obama. The Executive Orders also suggest that crime by undocumented migrants is a problem in sanctuary cities, yet research shows that crime rates are actually lower in “sanctuaries” than in non-sanctuary areas. Sanctuary counties also have higher incomes, less poverty, less reliance on public assistance and lower unemployment than non-sanctuary counties. It is no wonder that major city police chiefs have criticized and opposed the Executive Orders, citing them as detrimental to law enforcement because they erode trust between police and local communities.

Finally, national security experts have roundly criticized the January 27 Executive Order on Terrorism as actually being detrimental to national security. The Executive Order places an immediate ban on entry from seven countries, ostensibly for security reasons. Yet, there are zero cases of nationals from the seven banned countries killing US citizens in domestic terrorist attacks between 1975-2015. The Executive Order also places a ban on resettlement of refugees from Syria, despite the fact that zero US citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks by Syrian refugees, and that the chance of any American citizen dying in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is one in 3.6 billion. The Executive Order also implies that current vetting procedures for refugees are inadequate. Current vetting procedures for refugees however include multi-agency checks and last up to two years. Furthermore, the provisions of the Executive Order actually interfere with existing US military operations against the so-called Islamic State and have sparked outrage within both the Pentagon and the State Department and Foreign Service.

If the Executive Orders on migration and security were designed as policy documents, they have completely failed. They show a lack of understanding of existing policy and have put forth measures that have been openly opposed by law enforcement officials, the Pentagon, the State Department and counterterrorism officials. Given that the Executive Orders could potentially waste billions of US tax payers’ dollars to address non-existent problems – not to mention other potentially detrimental effects such as fostering domestic divisions, creating long-lasting reputational damage to the country, and harming national security, one has to question whether the Executive Orders were designed in good faith to be policy documents. If they are, it suggests a deeply worrying level of incompetence in the administration. If they are not, it suggests that the new administration is knowingly politicizing issues of national security.

Executive Orders as Political Theater

A second way to understand the President’s Executive Orders is to view them, not as policy instruments but rather as a form of political theater. In this reading, the purpose of the Executive Orders is not to address issues of border control or national security, but rather to signal to Trump’s voter base. They are primarily symbolic gestures designed to provide the appearance of taking bold action and to give an impression of delivering on Trump’s campaign promises. In other words, they are a form of political opportunism and political stunt.

There is indeed good evidence that this is a better understanding of the intended function of the Executive Orders on migration and security. The Executive Orders were hastily put together without consultation with relevant lawmakers or government agencies – there appears to have been little interest in ensuring that they addressed existing policy needs or gaps, or that they were legally and politically actionable. Indeed, the roll-out of the entry ban appears to have been deliberately dramatic and theatrical. There is absolutely no evidence that the Executive Order was responding in any shape or fashion to a plausible security threat.

The Executive Order on Terrorism was implemented in an abrupt and draconian manner – leading to the detention of children, students, professionals, the elderly and lawful permanent residents. Other than gross incompetence, the only possible explanation for this approach is that the administration engaged in a deliberate attempt to use the Executive Order as a form of political theater – to create drama, generate widespread fear and panic, and produce a reaction and backlash that could produce further polarization in a way that would benefit the administration – what some scholars have termed a “shock event.” If this is the case, it should be cause for grave concern, because it suggests that the Trump administration is willing to place political considerations over policy competence on issues of national security and domestic stability. While it was clear throughout the Trump campaign that much of the rhetoric was based on political opportunism, the fact that this approach is spilling over into the process of governance represents an alarming development.

Executive Orders as Ideological Pivot

Finally, there is an additional interpretation of the Executive Orders, which is that they are not about addressing issues of national security, or even an act of political opportunism, but rather serve a broader ideological purpose. The drafting of the Executive Orders was overseen by Stephen Bannon, the ex-Breitbart White House strategist who is widely seen as promoting an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim ethno-nationalist agenda. Bannon, along with White House advisor Stephen Miller, has been associated with white supremacist groups and far right nationalist and identitarian movements often referred to as the “alt-right.”

A number of provisions in the Executive Orders support the interpretation that they are primarily about ideology. The Executive Order on Public Safety requires the publication of a weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. It is hard to see the concrete public benefit of any such initiative, other than to purposefully stoke anti-immigrant sentiment within the United States – a highly undesirable outcome that could lead to a rise in hate crimes, conflict between different segments of the population and even domestic political instability.

There are also a number of worrisome elements in the Executive Order on Terrorism that appear deliberately provocative. The Executive Order targets only Muslim-majority countries and appears to have been designed as way of legally implementing the “Muslim Ban” that Trump called for during his election campaign. In addition, the Executive Orders introduce a religious bias into US migration policy by explicitly giving preference to religious minorities when determining refugee status. This is a move that de facto privileges Christian refugees – a provision that has been touted by Trump himself and has been criticized by numerous Christian leaders in both the United States and the affected regions.

Overall, this suggests a more “civilizational” approach to migration and national security policy – one that prioritizes ethno-religious forms of national identity. This would be a significant break from the past. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama frequently went to great lengths to decouple Islam from terrorism, and to reiterate that the United States is a multicultural society based on openness and tolerance. The Trump administration however has gone out of its way to do the opposite. It avoids any reference to liberal principles such as civil rights, human rights norms, freedom of the press or the values of an open society. Indeed, it has quite flagrantly challenged many of these basic principles by openly calling for religious discrimination and displaying a disregard for basic norms of tolerance and civility. If the Executive Orders are indicative of a broader governing philosophy characterized by a racialized illiberalism veering into authoritarianism, we should all be very worried indeed.

In short, one is left with three possible interpretations of President Trump’s Executive Orders on migration and security: as policy incompetence; political opportunism; or an ideological pivot towards a new “civilizational” security agenda. Any of these three explanations on their own should raise alarm bells; together they are cause for deep and grave concern about the new administration’s approach to safeguarding national security.

Author Names

Fiona Adamson

Date of Publication February 9, 2017