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What you need to know about Donald Trump’s refugee ban

What the sweeping border order actually means for Canadians, and why it may only increase the threat of terrorism
Donald Trump, John F. Kelly, Mike Pence
President Donald Trump, followed by Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, waves as he steps off stage after speaking at the Homeland Security Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It’s not the full-blown “Muslim ban” he proposed during the U.S. election campaign, but it sure feels like a first step. On Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order that closes America’s borders, for at least the next three months, to millions of foreigners—with a specific emphasis on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, Somalia and war-ravaged Syria.

The new rules triggered chaos at U.S. airports, where dozens of newcomers—already on their way to America when Trump scrawled his signature—were detained as soon as they landed. For a while, it appeared the order would even apply to Canadian dual citizens who were born in one of the seven blacklisted countries, but the White House later assured the Trudeau government that wasn’t the case. Any traveller carrying a Canadian passport “will be dealt with in the usual process,” says a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Here’s what else we know—and still don’t—about Trump’s controversial immigration ban.

What is an executive order?

Executive orders (EOs) are legally binding directives handed down by the president under the “executive power” authority laid out in the U.S. Constitution. By definition, the orders are controversial because they allow the White House to enact major policies without the consent of Congress. At last count, U.S. presidents have collectively signed more than 13,000 executive orders—some praiseworthy, some not—that did everything from liberate all slaves in the Confederacy, to integrate the Armed Forces, to authorize the detention of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Like all the others, history will be the judge of this one.

What does this executive order actually say?

It’s called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” and it runs more than 2,700 words. Simply put, Trump wants his national-security agencies to examine whether enough is being done to adequately screen certain immigrants, refugees and visitors before they arrive on U.S. soil.

“Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States,” the order reads. “The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.”

While that evaluation is being conducted, the order temporarily suspends the flow of all refugees from every country—repeat: all refugees from every country—for 120 days. It also imposes a 90-day ban on all types of immigration from the group of seven: Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Syria. And depending on what the evaluation concludes, those temporary suspensions could soon become permanent.

Syrian refugees? Trump has deemed them “detrimental to the interests of the United States” and barred them indefinitely. One Syrian family, living in a Turkish refugee camp after fleeing the war, was scheduled to arrive in Cleveland on Tuesday. Not anymore.

Initially, the Department of Homeland Security also said the executive order would apply to so-called “green card” holders (i.e. permanent residents who, though not citizens, enjoy legal status). If they left the country, in other words, they might not be allowed back. On Sunday, however, the department changed its stance, assuring everyone with a green card that they won’t be turned away at the border.

One more thing: “To be more transparent with the American people,” the executive order compels the government to update the public, every six months, on “the number of foreign nationals in the United States” implicated in terrorism offences—or “acts of gender-based violence against women, including honor killings.”

How did Canadian politicians react?

Justin Trudeau took a not-so-subtle jab at his U.S. counterpart, tweeting a photo of himself meeting the first planeload of Syrian refugees to arrive at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in 2015. “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith,” he wrote. “Diversity is our strength. #WelcomeToCanada.” At last count, it has been retweeted more than 408,000 times.

Justin Trudeau tweets his support for refugees, Saturday January 28, 2017
Justin Trudeau tweets his support for refugees, Saturday January 28, 2017

Provincial premiers, from Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne to Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall to British Columbia’s Christy Clark also sent tweets reaffirming their commitment to refugee resettlement. But it was Jason Kenney—former immigration minister under prime minister Stephen Harper, now running for the Progressive Conservative leadership in Alberta—who had the harshest words for Trump. “This is not about national security,” he wrote. “It is a brutal, ham-fisted act of demagogic political theatre.”

What does the ban mean for Canadian travellers?

There was widespread panic on Saturday that the seven-nation ban would include Canadians who also hold citizenship in those countries. (Iranian-Canadians, for example, or Somali-Canadians—people like Canada’s new Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen.) The EO doesn’t specifically mention dual nationals (Canadian or otherwise) but early media reports did suggest that certain Canadians would be lumped in with those unwelcome “aliens.” (Which did beg the obvious question, though: how would a U.S. border agent know that a person travelling with a Canadian passport is a dual citizen?)

By late Saturday night, some clarity arrived. The Prime Minister’s Office released a statement saying that National Security adviser Daniel Jean “was in touch over the course of the day” with his Trump counterpart, Michael Flynn. “Flynn confirmed that holders of Canadian passports, including dual nationals, will not be affected by the ban,” the statement continued. “We have been assured that Canadian citizens travelling on Canadian passports will be dealt with in the usual process.”

At a press conference Sunday afternoon, Hussen stressed yet again that Canadian dual nationals who are also citizens of one of the seven listed nations (approximately 35,000 people, he said) would not be impacted by the executive order. His U.S. counterparts, he said, have also assured Ottawa that the ban will not apply to Canadian permanent residents, either (our equivalent of green-card holders).

Will that promise pan out? Surely the Trump team wouldn’t lie.

Are any foreign travellers stuck at Canadian airports after being denied boarding to the United States?

Not many. Speaking at the same news conference as Minister Hussen, Jean told reporters “there have been a few people stranded in a couple of airports.” If they remain stuck here, Hussen said, he will invoke his ministerial authority “to provide them with temporary residency if they need it.”

Will Canada boost its planned refugee intake this year in light of Trump’s ban?

No, Hussen says. According to its annual targets, the Trudeau government plans to resettle 25,000 refugees in 2017: 16,00o privately sponsored, 7,500 government-assisted, and 1,500 under a so-called “blended” stream in which Ottawa and private sponsors split the cost. “The allocation that we have for refugees this year is quite high,” the Minister said, “and it shows the commitment that we have as a country to continue the tradition of welcoming those in need.”

Will this supposed anti-terror measure actually make America safer?

Not likely. In fact, it could have the opposite affect.

Depending on the source, terrorism in America has killed approximately 120 people since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—and none of that terrorism was waged by people who came from the seven countries named in Trump’s visa ban. (None of the 9/11 plotters, by the way, immigrated from those countries, either.) The largest attack, last year’s shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, was the work of a New Yorker, born and raised. The Muslim couple who massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., two years ago? He was born in Chicago and she was a Pakistani raised in Saudi Arabia. Neither Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia is on Trump’s banned list. Neither is Russia, where the Boston Marathon bombers were born.

“Immigration has zero relationship to terrorism, absolutely zero,” says Phil Gurski, a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the country’s spy agency. “You look at what’s happened since 9/11, and I can’t think of a single case in either country where somebody somehow got access to Canada or the United States for the sole purpose of carrying out a terrorist attack. We’ve certainly had people who were immigrants, but what Trump fails to realize—or realizes and ignores—is that people who immigrate here as children and who radicalize to violence here, that is a completely different issue than someone getting off a plane and doing something.”

A research paper released last year by the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, concluded that the odds “of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion” (their italics).

If anything, Gurski says, Trump’s order is a gift for genuine terrorist groups because it bolsters the tired jihadist narrative that the West is at war with Islam. “If you read the propaganda that groups like the Islamic State put out, they try to convince Muslims—not just in the Middle East, but Muslims in the Western world—that nobody wants you and nobody likes you and that the only way you can live as a true Muslim is to come here and live with us,” he tells Maclean’s. “So when you have these types of pronouncements from the president of the United States, ISIS can say: ‘I told you so.’ ”

What happens next?

More days in court, no doubt. On Saturday night, a federal judge in New York issued an emergency stay—halting any deportations of travellers caught in the dragnet of Trump’s executive order—but the legal fight isn’t done. The American Civil Liberties Union, among others, is challenging the constitutionality of the executive order, alleging it violates due process and equal protection clauses. Those arguments have yet to be heard.

In the meantime, Trump continues to insist—despite his campaign musings about banning all Muslims from the country—that his order isn’t directed at any particular religious group. “It’s not a Muslim ban, but we were totally prepared,” he told reporters in the Oval Office on Saturday. “It’s working out very nicely, you see it at the airports, you see it all over…We’re going to have a very, very strict ban and we’re going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country for many years.”