Protesting the executive order
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Protesting the executive order in Seattle in January

CREDIT: Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

Trump’s Travel Ban

Why President Trump’s executive order halting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations has generated so much controversy and debate
Homeland Security Defends Travel Ban
Travel Ban Protest at JFK

Mustafa is a 28-year-old from Iraq who once did construction on American military bases in his home country. He nearly lost his life several years ago when radical militias in his neighborhood found out and accused him of treason.

“I was beaten and shot and knifed,” says Mustafa, who didn’t want his full name published.*

Mustafa fled to neighboring Lebanon and applied for asylum in the United States. Like all refugees coming to the U.S., he submitted to years of interviews and investigations into his background. In January, he was close to getting a green light to fly to California—and begin his new life in America. 

But his hopes were dashed, at least for the moment, when President Donald Trump issued an executive order on January 27 temporarily barring all refugee admissions and banning immigration of any kind for 90 days from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. 

“If I do get rejected,” Mustafa says, struggling not to weep, “I’d regret ever having shaken hands with an American.”

Mustafa is one of countless people across the globe who got swept up in the tumult following Trump’s executive order. In the days after it was signed, refugees, immigrants, and travelers, including students and others with valid visas to enter and live in the U.S., were detained at American airports or prevented from leaving their home countries, their lives in at least temporary limbo. In the U.S., people flocked to international airports around the country to protest the order and show their support for those affected by it. 

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CREDIT: Jim McMahon

A Flood of Lawsuits

Civil liberties groups, religious groups, some state attorneys general, and individuals filed a flood of lawsuits against the executive order, which they say targets Muslims. They argued that the order violates, among other things, the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, as well as due process rights. 

Politicians, pundits, and ordinary Americans squared off in intense debates about American values and whether the bans will make the nation safer or make it more of a target for Islamic extremists. 

Trump says the government needs time to toughen vetting procedures for all refugees and for anyone coming from certain countries to protect Americans from terrorist groups such as ISIS (also known as the Islamic State). ISIS is actively plotting to launch attacks against Americans. 

“We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas,” Trump said when he signed the executive order.

Others predicted the order would accomplish the exact opposite of what the president intended.

“This executive order will make it more challenging for the U.S. to deal with extremist terrorists globally,” says Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It will be used as a recruitment tool by terrorist organizations. And it will make it harder to prevent foreign fighters from joining terrorist organizations.”

Adding to the uncertainty, federal courts in February suspended the executive order while it’s being challenged legally. At press time, the Trump administration was planning to issue a new executive order to replace the one that’s been suspended, in the hope that it would be less vulnerable to legal challenges.

The executive order has its roots in a campaign promise. In December 2015, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration in response to the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism.

Who’s Affected?

All refugees and people in the following categories from the seven targeted countries were affected by the executive order as they tried to reach the U.S.

Refugees Those forced to flee their home countries to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. The U.S. usually accepts tens of thousands of refugees every year.

Immigrants People seeking to live here permanently. The U.S. accepts about 1 million immigrants
a year. (Travelers who had green cards giving them permanent resident status were initially prevented from re-entering the U.S., but later exempted from the ban.)

Tourists Most people visiting the U.S. on vacation or to see family must get tourist visas that permit a brief stay.

Students Foreigners attending school in the U.S. usually get visas that allow them to go back and forth between their home country and the U.S.

Workers There are about 8 million foreigners in the U.S. with visas allowing them to work.

‘Trying to Get Ahead of the Threat’

Earlier that month, a Muslim-American gunman claiming to be acting on behalf of ISIS killed 14 people at an office party in San Bernardino, California. Trump’s proposal resonated with many Americans who were increasingly fearful about the threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Terrorists have staged a series of deadly attacks in Europe over the past year, including one in Berlin in December that killed 12 people and was carried out by a Tunisian who had tried to claim refugee status. 

Trump later modified his stance and rather than ban all Muslim immigration he focused his executive order on the seven predominantly Muslim nations that he says pose the biggest terrorist threat to the United States. Those who favor the travel ban say it’s simply common sense to tighten immigration rules to prevent attacks here.

‘With all that’s going on at the moment, I think a limit on who can come into the country is not a bad idea.’

—Zach Cooke, 21

“With all that’s going on at the moment, I think a limit on who can come into the country is not a bad idea,” says Zach Cooke, 21, an electrical engineering major at Mississippi State University.   

James Jay Carafano, a security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., sees the executive order as “trying to get ahead of the threat.” 

As military pressure increases on ISIS, Carafano says, “tens of thousands of foreign fighters” will flee. Some could try to reach America, perhaps posing as refugees, he says, so stronger vetting of those entering the country is crucial.

But opponents, who often refer to the order as a “Muslim ban,” argue that it flies in the face of America’s history as a welcoming place for immigrants and as a beacon of religious freedom. 

“What Donald Trump did in the last 24 hours is disgusting, disgraceful, and completely un-American,” said Pamela French, one of the hundreds of protesters who showed up at New York’s JFK airport after the executive order was signed. 

3.3 Million Muslims

Critics point out that no one from the seven countries named in the ban has been involved in a terrorist attack on the United States, including the 9/11 attacks. The executive order, they add, will make the U.S. look like an anti-Muslim country, not only providing groups like ISIS with recruitment slogans but also making it less likely that people in other Muslim countries will help the U.S. in its fight against terrorism.

Even though the executive order didn’t apply to American citizens, it generated deep anxiety among many U.S. Muslims and even a sense that America’s democratic institutions may be at risk. An estimated 3.3 million Muslims live in the United States, and they have a long history here, with the first major wave of immigrants arriving in the late 19th century. Today, about a third of American Muslims are African-American, another third are of South Asian ancestry, a quarter are from Arab countries, and the rest are from other parts of the world. 

Nasser Alsubai, 28, was born in Yemen, but is now a U.S. citizen living in New York, having been naturalized after coming here when he was 6. “He’s going to make us go back in time,” he says of President Trump. “Like the [internment] camps with the Japanese. We’re fighting all over the world for every single country to have democracy, but we’re not doing it here.”

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A memorial for victims of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, carried out by ISIS; President Trump says tougher vetting at U.S. borders is needed to prevent similar attacks in the U.S. 

CREDIT: Delalande Raymond/SIPA/AP Photo

International Students

Another group feeling the impact of the executive order is international students and the schools at which they study. According to the Institute of International Education, more than a million international students attend U.S. schools, including about 17,000 from the seven countries named in the travel ban. 

And for many of them, the U.S. is suddenly looking like a much less friendly place. Shadi Darani, 26, is an Iranian graduate student in mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University. The day after Trump signed the executive order, she was at the Philadelphia airport to pick up her mother, who was coming for a visit. It had been two years since Darani had seen her. 

But instead of a joyful reunion, Darani discovered that her mother had been detained for hours and then put on a plane back to Iran. The experience left Darani badly shaken.

‘Now it seems like we are not welcome here and they are treating us like terrorists.’

—Shadi Darani, 26

“We all came here to work and study,” she says. “We all love the people around us, and we want to be loved. But now it seems that we are not welcome here, and they are treating us like terrorists. It’s really making us sad and hopeless. We don’t know what to do.” 

It’s unclear what will happen to all the people affected by the ban during the period that it’s been suspended by the courts. Some refugees who were turned back initially or had their travel plans canceled have made their way to the U.S. Many international students and people with valid U.S. visas have also returned to their lives in America. 

But for others, the suspension may have come too late. Some visas, once canceled, can’t easily be renewed. And those who were humiliated by being detained and sent back to their home countries may not wish to return to the U.S.  

That kind of loss of faith in America demonstrates how tricky it is for the government to balance two competing but fundamental interests. 

“Our government has a responsibility to defend our borders,” Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement in January, “but we must do so in a way that makes us safer and upholds all that is decent and exceptional about our nation.”

*Mustafa didn’t want his full name published because he’s still hoping to come to the U.S. and he’s concerned about giving officials a reason to deny him entry.

Two Views of the Travel Ban
Political cartoonists take sides on President Trump’s executive order
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CREDIT: Michael Ramirez/
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CREDIT: Jimmy Margulies/
With reporting by Thomas Erdbrink, Rod Norland, Joe Cochrane, Patrick Kingsley, Stephanie Saul, and Liz Robbins of The Times.

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