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Travel Ban Sham By The Numbers: Trump Is Inventing Refugees’ Threat to National Security

| February 12, 2017


Hundreds of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean aboard a fishing boat, moments before being rescued by the Italian Navy as part of their Mare Nostrum operation in June 2014. (Massimo Sestini/The Italian Coastguard)

By Alex Nowrasteh

Last week President Trump is signed an executive order enacting a 30-day suspension of all visas for nationals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  [The order has been stayed.] Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.  Six Iranians, six Sudanese, two Somalis, two Iraqis, and one Yemini have been convicted of attempting or carrying out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Zero Libyans or Syrians have been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during that time period.

Many other foreigners have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses that did not include planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  One list released by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) details 580 terror-related convictions since 9/11. This incomplete list probably influenced which countries are temporarily banned, and likely provided justification for another section of Trump’s executive order, which directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release all information on foreign-born terrorists going forward, and requires additional DHS reports to study foreign-born terrorism.

I exhaustively evaluated Senator Sessions’ list of convictions based on publicly available data and discovered some startling details.

First, 241 of the convictions (42 percent) were not for terrorism offenses.  Senator Sessions puffed his numbers by including “terrorism-related convictions,” a nebulous category that includes investigations that begin due to a terrorism tip but then end in non-terrorism convictions.  My favorite examples of this are the convictions of Nasser Abuali, Hussein Abuali, and Rabi Ahmed.  An informant told the FBI that the trio tried to purchase a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, but the FBI found no evidence supporting the accusation.  The three individuals were instead convicted of receiving two truckloads of stolen cereal.  That is a crime but it is not terrorism. 

Second, only 40 of the 580 convictions (6.9 percent) were for foreigners planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  Seeking to join a foreign terrorist group overseas, material support for a foreign terrorist, and seeking to commit an act of terror on foreign soil account for 180 of the 580 convictions (31 percent).  Terrorism on foreign soil is a crime, should be a crime, and those convicted of these offenses should be punished severely but the government cannot claim that these convictions made America safe again because these folks were not targeting U.S. soil.

Third, 92 of the 580 convictions (16 percent) were for U.S. born citizens.  No change in immigration law, visa limitations, or more rigorous security checks would have stopped them. 

syrian refugees

Syrian refugees in Kilis, southern Turkey. Click on the image for larger view.
(IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation)

The executive order includes national security exemptions to be made on a case-by-case basis.  The President reserves the option to ban the entry of nationals from additional countries in the future based on a national security risk report written by DHS.  Furthermore, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security can recommend visa bans for nationals from additional countries at any time.

In addition to the visa restrictions above, Trump’s executive order further cuts the refugee program to 50,000 annually, indefinitely blocks all refugees from Syria, and suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days.  This is a response to a phantom menace.  From 1975 to the end of 2015, 20 refugees have been convicted of attempting or committing terrorism on U.S. soil, and only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees—all in the 1970s.  Zero Americans have been killed by Syrian refugees in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  The annual chance of an American dying in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is one in 3.6 billion.  The other 17 convictions have mainly been for aiding or attempting to join foreign terrorists.  

President Trump tweeted earlier this week that executive orders were intended to improve national security by reducing the terrorist threat.  However, a rational evaluation of national security threats is not the basis for Trump’s orders, as the risk is fairly small but the cost is great. The measures taken here will have virtually no effect on improving U.S. national security.

Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice. Reach him by email here or follow him on Twitter.

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19 Responses for “Travel Ban Sham By The Numbers: Trump Is Inventing Refugees’ Threat to National Security”

  1. Common Sense says:

    Just more lies from a deceitful, shameful administration.

  2. r&r says:

    What he’s doing are things he said he would do IF elected. Why is it a surprise to anyone?

  3. Greg G says:

    This ia another example of left wing propaganda, you do not discuss the numerous terrorist attacks across Europe committed by Syrian refugees Are we to assume that ISIS will not infiltrate the refugee population just as they have done in Europe.

    ISIS has announced several times that they intend to infiltrate the refugee population. In addition just because a Syrian refugee has not yet committed a terror attack does mean it won’t happen. No one has ever broken into my home but I still lock the door at night and own a security system.

  4. ImWithHer says:

    He is NOT doing everything he said if elected. Whatever happened to “lock her up”? He is a big fat liar!

  5. Dutch says:

    But much better than the last one….

  6. William Moya says:

    Odd, but I agree with both comments.

  7. Knightwatch says:

    Actually, Trump is the most serious threat to national security. The uses an unsecured phone, he Tweets his intentions, he praises and probably shares plans and strategies with our greatest external enemy while he bullies and insults our allies. He has demeaned and degraded our free press and our judicial system. This unbalanced sociopathic narcissist is drowning our national credibility in lies and disinformation. He has sullied and defiled the office of the president for a generation. He needs to be stopped.

  8. starryid says:

    September 11, 2001…

  9. Sw says:

    You get who you all elected.

  10. Mr Chris says:

    So the logical thing to do is set a number 50, 75 or 100? After that number of terror related deaths we start implimenting security measures but not a second sooner. I don’t think anyone would run their household like that.

  11. palmcoaster says:

    Fear mongering comes in handy to tyrants…more to come be prepared.

  12. JasonB says:

    I don’t recall him saying he was going to be Putin’s bitch, he’s certainly done that.

  13. Richard Smith says:

    Well it shouldn’t be any surprise as that is exactly what he said he would do when he became POTUS among many other promises that I am sure he will follow through on also.

    What a breath of fresh air, a president that actually does what he campaigned on and promised to do. I guess that’s why he got elected, a president that gets the job done unlike our previous do nothing POTUS.

  14. Mark says:

    People, wake up. The list came from the obama administration! Let’s speak truth if you are going to speak!

  15. Shark says:

    Who voted for this jackass ?????????????

  16. BillW says:

    Six Iranians, six Sudanese, two Somalis, two Iraqis, and one Yemini have been convicted of attempting or carrying out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. That’s 17 too many !

  17. palmcoaster says:

    American born citizens targeted too over what,…racial profiling or last name profiling…sure this one is no terrorist being a NSA engineer for over 10 years!!

  18. Sherry says:

    Ahhhh Palmcoaster. . . didn’t you know that NASA Scientists ARE terrorists in our new “Alternate Reality”? Those damned scientists at NASA are trying to save the planet by actually educating us about the FACTS of the massive problems of climate change!!! They ARE terrorists in the new Trump LALA Land because they still believe in scientific fact!!!

  19. Veteran says:

    These are the 7 countries the Obama administration outlined as sources of terror. Press said nothing then.

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