Speed Reads

Trump v Obama

How Trump and Obama's executive orders on Muslim refugees and immigrants are similar and different

Reacting to criticism about his broad, chaotically rolled-out executive order indefinitely banning refugees and immigrants from Syria, suspending entry of all refugees for 120 days, and putting a 90-day stop to all travelers from six other majority-Muslim countries, President Trump protested that former President Barack Obama did it first. "My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months," Trump wrote. "The seven countries named in the executive order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror."

There is some truth to that. But as Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler said in awarding Trump two "Pinocchios" for the Obama comparison, the comparison is "facile" and misleading. If you don't remember Obama's 2011 executive order — the administration did not publicize it — it involved slowing down the approval of new visas for Iraqi nationals, following investigative findings that two Iraqi refugees were implicated in making improvised bombs targeting U.S. troops in Iraq. The policy also included re-vetting 58,000 Iraqi refugees already settled in the U.S., as then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano explained to Congress in September 2011.

The slowdown in approving Iraqi visas did prompt negative news stories and complaints from civil liberties and refugee advocacy groups at the time, and did appear to result in many fewer Iraqi refugees arriving in the U.S. in 2011, though the numbers rebounded in 2012. It did not stop all visitors from Iraq from traveling to the U.S. or halt refugee or visa applications, and unlike Trump's order, it was tied to a specific threat.

Trump identified only Syria by name in his executive order, and the other six nations covered in the ban — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen — did come from a list of countries "of concern" identified by the Obama administration under a visa-related law enacted in December 2015, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act. The list did not affect nationals of those seven countries, though; it meant that some citizens of the 38 allied (mostly Western) countries eligible for a special visa waiver program who had spent time in the seven "countries of concern" had to "obtain a visa for travel to the United States, which generally includes an in-person interview at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate," as U.S. Customs and Border Patrol explained.

The last major difference between the Trump and Obama actions are that Trump's small group of advisers, led by Stephen Bannon, reportedly did not consult or prepare any officials at the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State when writing the executive order, and DHS Secretary John Kelly learned about the major policy shift he was supposed to enact on a briefing call as Trump was signing it, The New York Times reports. CBP officials are still figuring out what the policy covers. Obama, meanwhile, "ran executive orders through a painstaking weeks-long process of soliciting feedback from agencies and briefing lawmakers," a "former official" tells Politico. "Sometimes it even asked expert lawyers in the private sector to check its work."