I am surely not the only one noticing the extent to which the corporate media worldwide are damning Donald Trump. In the wake of Brexit, his supporters were repeatedly likened to the Brits who voted Leave, both groups being characterized as “white and less well educated.” And over the past week, the Washington Post has been examining and damning nearly everything The Donald has said and done, hammering the presumptive GOP nominee with an average of six heavily editorialized news articles daily, plus op-eds.
To be sure, Trump has earned much of the opprobrium, with his often contradictory and scattershot presentations of the policies he intends to pursue, as well as the provocative language that has left him legitimately open to charges of racism and sexism. Trump’s racially flavored warnings about homegrown terrorists certainly have considerable popular appeal in the wake of San Bernardino and Orlando, but the reality is that Muslim Americans as a group exhibit low crime rates, achieve higher-than-average levels of education, and are financially successful. Police sources reveal that they frequently cooperate with law enforcement regarding members of their community who are flirting with militancy.
Trump is also presumed guilty of several other Democratic Party-defined capital crimes, including failing to enthusiastically embrace diversity and multiculturalism. But at the core of his appeal to voters is the one issue that he largely gets right, and that is immigration, both as a cultural phenomenon and as a law-and-order issue.
His up-front condemnation of illegal immigration can be seen as the launching pad for his successful campaign for the GOP nomination. From a rule-of-law and national-security perspective, many Americans have long been dismayed by the federal government’s unwillingness to control the nation’s borders, and many blue-collar workers have a more personal stake in the issue, being appalled by the impact of mass illegal immigration on their communities.
While Trump’s proposed blanket ban on Muslim travelers is both constitutionally and ethically wrongheaded and, in my opinion, potentially damaging to broader U.S. interests, his related demand to temporarily stop travel or immigration from some core countries that have serious problems with militancy is actually quite sensible. This is because the United States has only a limited ability to vet people from those countries. The Obama administration claims it is rigorously screening travelers and immigrants—but it has provided little to no evidence that its procedures are effective.
The first step in travel limitation is to define the problem. While it is popular in Congress and the media to focus on countries like Iran, nationals of such countries do not constitute a serious threat. Shi’a Muslims, the majority of Iranians, have characteristically not staged suicide attacks, nor do they as a group directly threaten American or Western interests. The Salafist organizations with international appeal and global reach are all Sunni Muslim. In fact, al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Nusra all self-define as Sunni Muslim and regard Shi’as as heretics. Most of the foot soldiers who do the fighting and dying for the terrorist groups and their affiliates are Sunnis who come from Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, and even the homegrown Europeans and Americans who join their ranks are Sunni.
It is no coincidence that the handful of Muslim countries that harbor active insurgencies have also been on the receiving end of U.S. military interventions, which generate demands for revenge against the West and the U.S. in particular. They would be the countries to monitor most closely for militants seeking to travel. All of them represent launching pads for potential attacks, and it should be assumed that groups like ISIS would be delighted to infiltrate refugee and immigrant groups.
U.S. embassies and consulates overseas are the choke points for those potential terrorists. Having myself worked the visa lines in consulates overseas, I understand just how difficult it is to be fair to honest travelers while weeding out those whose intentions are less honorable. At the consulate, an initial screening based on name and birth date determines whether an applicant is on any no-fly or terrorism-associate lists. Anyone coming up is automatically denied, but the lists include a great deal of inaccurate information, so they probably “catch” more innocent people than they do actual would-be terrorists. Individuals who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria since 2011, or who are citizens of those countries, are also selected out for additional review.
For visitors who pass the initial screening and who do not come from one of the 38 “visa waiver” countries, mostly in Europe, the next step is the visitor’s visa, called a B-2. At that point, the consulate’s objective is to determine whether the potential traveler has a good reason to visit the U.S., has the resources to pay for the trip, and is likely to return home before the visa expires. The process seeks to establish that the applicant has sufficient equity in his or her home country to guarantee returning to it, a recognition of the fact that most visa fraud relates to overstaying one’s visit to disappear into the unregistered labor market in the U.S. The process is document-driven, with the applicants presenting evidence of bank accounts, employment, family ties, and equity like homeownership. Sometimes letters of recommendation from local business leaders or politicians might also become elements in the decision.
In some countries, documentary evidence can be supplemented by police reports if the local government is cooperative. Some consulates employ investigators, generally ex-policemen, who are able to examine public records if there is any doubt about an applicant’s profile or intentions, but most governments do not permit access to official documents. Recently, background investigations have sometimes been supplemented by an examination of the applicant’s presence on the internet to determine whether he or she is frequenting militant sites or discussing political issues online. If the visa applicant is seeking to become a U.S. resident, the process is, of course, much more rigorous.
Both travel and immigrant visas are nevertheless a somewhat subjective process. I knew a visa officer in Turkey who delighted in turning down Iranian applicants “on principle.” It was a seemingly arbitrary act—but this was shortly after the U.S. embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, and it was plausibly based on the fact that there was no embassy any longer in Iran and documents presented in Turkey would be impossible to verify.
Most of those convicted in terrorism-related cases in the U.S. are foreign-born. The real issue that Trump should be addressing is the federal government’s inability to vet visa applicants to a level that could be considered sufficient from a national-security perspective, a failure that has led some conservatives to complain that White House policy is to “invade the world, invite the world.”
In many places, official documents are easy to forge or can even be obtained in genuine form from corrupt bureaucrats. If one is unable to go the source of the document for verification, papers submitted in support of a visa application are frequently impossible to authenticate. So what does one do when applicants from countries in the throes of civil war—like Iraq, Syria, or Yemen—show up at a visa window, some of them with no documents at all? Or when such applicants constitute not a trickle but a flood? It gets complicated, and Trump has a point in saying we should deny visas to all of them until procedures can be established for making those judgments in a more coherent fashion.
Another steady stream of immigrants into the U.S. comes from the refugee-resettlement process; Washington is a signatory to the United Nations-administered agreements to resettle refugees. Much of the background vetting is carried out by the UN in a not-completely-transparent fashion, and the resettlement of the refugees in various places is done by quota—with the U.S. being the largest recipient country, expected to receive 100,000 refugees in 2017. But does the Obama administration have a clue regarding the reliability of the information it gets on the new would-be Americans? If it does, it is not letting on.
The mostly Saudi attackers on 9/11 used temporary or tourist visas to enter the country, so the threat from that source should be clear to everyone involved in the entry process, and consulates are acutely aware of the danger. But beyond that, the Obama administration has been complacent. It would no doubt point to the fact that no refugee to the United States has carried out an act of terror once admitted to the country, which would be true but somewhat misleading: The estimated 77,000 Somali refugees who have somehow wound up in Minnesota have included a substantial number of younger men and women who have returned home to join the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab. And it would in any event be prudent to be cautious when relying on past behavior models, as groups like ISIS have indicated their desire to hit the United States and have proven to be highly adaptable in their tactics.
Trump’s demands to block many visitors and would-be residents might seem an overreaction, but until a broken immigration system is fixed, he is more right than wrong.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.