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Fact-Check: When Jimmy Carter Threatened Iranian Students With Deportation

| December 9, 2015

jimmy carter iranian hostages deportations

President Jimmy Carter in 1978. (CIA)

Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States led to numerous condemnations from liberals and conservatives, but also to significant support especially on conservative talk radio shows and, according to a Bloomberg poll, from two-thirds of likely Republican voters.

Trump’s statement has also caused his defenders to point to precedents, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (to which Trump pointed as one rationale for his approach, though the internment era, while never invalidated by the Supreme Court, now ranks as an unmitigated blight on FDR’s record and the nation’s history). On Wednesday, the story of President Carter’s restrictions on Iranians during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 began surfacing. The story, as told by reactionary sites such as Newsmax and Frontpage, is mostly wrong, and bears correcting, as it is beginning to invade discussion streams and distort facts. As one commenter put it on FlaglerLive, “Even Jimmy Carter paused Iranian immigration and had a sort of registration in 1980? Is he racist?”

In fact, Carter never paused Iranian immigration wholesale, nor was there a registration system. But what Carter tried to implement was bad enough in that regard. It did not pass the test of its first judicial review a judge barely three weeks after implementation, but an appeals court upheld the president’s authority to set immigration policy, “so long as such distinctions” be tween classes of immigrants “are not wholly irrational.”

On Nov. 10, 1979, six days into the 444-day hostage crisis, Carter ordered Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti to begin deportation proceedings of Iranian students—and only Iranian students—found to be illegally in the United States. The Attorney General always had that authority, and attorneys general have exercised it to a larger or lesser extent, depending on the administration (Obama’s has been the harshest of the last couple of decades). The difference with Carter’s order is that it targeted a specific class of people, a specific nationality. In that regard, Carter was giving in to public pressure to look like he was “doing something” in the face of the hostage crisis in its early days.

To enforce the order, Civiletti on Nov. 13 issued an order for all Iranians with student visas to report to federal immigration offices or face deportation, according to the New York Times at the time. Students alone were targeted because the hostage-takers in Tehran were purportedly students. All other Iranians in the United States, including tourists, business travelers, other visitors, Iranian students who’d immigrated, and all other Green Card holders, were exempt. For student-visa holders, that would have been a limited registration system of a sort, but it didn’t get very far: on Dec. 11, Federal District Judge Joyce Hens Green, who had been appointed to the bench by Carter just seven months earlier, gave Carter a thank you note by way of ordering his and his attorney general to immediately stop enforcement of the Civiletti order–and forbade the administration from using any information gathered on the students until that point.

“The effect of the regulation at issue is to establish two classes of nonimmigrant students, Iranians and non-Iranians,” Judge Green wrote in her order. The guarantee of equal protection is “one fundamental to the individual freedom of all persons, citizens and noncitizens alike, and it is one that the action of the executive threatens to totally annul.

“The need to express American anger at Iranian actions is hardly sufficiently compelling to justify subjecting only Iranian students to a discriminatory, 30-day roundup that violates the fundamental principles of American fairness,” the judge wrote. “Above all, it is patent that the executive, even in the area of immigration and naturalization, must be subject to applicable principles of the Constitution.”

By then, the Justice Department had interviewed 50,437 students, 41,254 (or 82 percent) of whom were in compliance and 405 of whom had applied for asylum. The Justice Department found 6,042 of them deportable, with some 3,200 who’d not produced enough information at the time of their interviews. The ruling did not stop the administration from enforcing laws in place, so the deportations could proceed. But by then, only nine had been deported.

Seventeen days after Green’s decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. overturned the decision, ruling that “it is not the business of courts to pass judgment on the decisions of the President in the field of foreign policy.” The court also stated that it was not in a position to challenge Carter’s judgment “in the absence of acts that are clearly in excess of his authority.” Nevertheless, the matter was strictly limited to Iranian students, and the overwhelming majority of them continued to be permitted to stay in the country. (By the time of the appeals court order, 55,000 students had reported to immigration offices and 45,700 were cleared to stay.)

On April 7, 1980, immediately after Ayatollah Khomeini backed the student take-over of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Carter cut all diplomatic ties with Iran, imposed sanctions, froze Iranian assets, and ordered the issuance of visas to Iranian nationals halted in most circumstances—not an uncommon ploy between nations that end their diplomatic relations. Currently, for example, there is no visa service in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Belarus.

Carter’s order was to “invalidate all visas issued to Iranian citizens for future entry into the United States, effective today,” he said on April 7, 1980. “We will not reissue visas, nor will we issue new visas, except for compelling and proven humanitarian reasons or where the national interest of our own country requires. This directive will be interpreted very strictly.”

To compare that action either to the internment of nationals or resident aliens or the blanket ban on travel by an entire religion, regardless of origin, or to judge it somehow out of the norms of diplomatic sanctions, mischaracterizes history and inaccurately conflates Trump’s actions with those of Carter.

Judge Green, meanwhile, remains a federal judge. After serving seven years on the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—to which she was appointed by President Reagan—she has been a senior district judge in the D.C. circuit. She is 87, but still Carter’s junior by four years.

Pierre Tristam

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23 Responses for “Fact-Check: When Jimmy Carter Threatened Iranian Students With Deportation”

  1. Lin says:

    Distinction without a difference?
    You say in 1980 Carter ordered issuance of visas halted to Iranians. That is what I was referring to.

    I don’t agree with all-Trumpisms & I was speaking about the fact that protecting the country by limited immigration does not make one a racist or even republican or conservative. Please note also the Immigration & Naturalization law in 1952 if you read it to the end was attempting to protect the country.

    It has been threatened by terrorists that they will seed their terrorists among refugees. We have evidence they succeeded in Europe. If fbi admits we cannot vet these refugees and I posit the other illegal immigrants that we can’t count, and if I’m concerned and looking for our representatives to offer some protections, that does not mean there is any racial or xenophobic component or lack of kindness on my part. It isn’t even a political thing.

    Pierre, we are at war today, here. I want to know what our government is doing to protect us. Our president says Isis is contained. A few hrs later Paris happens. He says climate change is the biggest threat. Loretta Lynch says the thing she is most concerned about is us criticizing Muslims. They have no strategy, no comprehension of the threat.

    Your choice to nitpick my exact words — ok I’ll try to be more careful. But the picture is clear to me — please try to see my point even if you don’t agree. I read your articles and do try to open my mind. I could do without another lecture. I get enough from the president.

  2. Sherry says:

    Again Lin. . . your argument that repeating (illegal) mistakes that government leaders made in the past somehow makes similar ideas OK now . . is illogical. . . that is unless you really do think “2 wrongs make a right”.

    Regarding Climate Change. . . 95% of scientists agree, If we do not stop what is rapidly happening to our environment and climate, ALL human, animal and plant life our planet will be in greater and greater jeopardy within the next 100 years or less. ALL the wars and terrorist acts pale in comparison.

    Regarding Trump’s ginning up fear and hate against of ALL Muslims. . . he is playing right into the hands of the terrorists by putting our nation at odds with 1.6 BILLION people from many, many different countries. Therefore, Trump is actually putting our country in very grave danger!

  3. Dave says:

    Lets see, who’s beheading people in the middle east, Muslims, who just killed 14 people, Muslims. But the key here is Radical Islamist . Eliminate those and the world will be a better place. Trump is a nut, its obvious. He is stirring up the press and the media so someone will talk about the radical Islamist. He is making the democrats talk about the terror in the US from this group of nuts. In a way, he reminds me of Putin. Bomb first talk later.

  4. Ray Thorne says:

    I agree with Lin.

  5. Dan potter says:

    I am a little frustrated that we get so concerned with security situations in other countries that our politicians in Congress can’t devise a means to protect our own borders.
    The Constituition is a very short guide in people’s rights. It only requires a few minutes to read completely yet it describes the values of our country. America has been a whirlwind of wars, racial problems, and financial disasters. We are on the clift of total currency failure.
    All that Mr Trump is doing is trying to buy our country a little time to construct a means to identify the radical Muslims from the many peace loving ones. Trump has many friends who are Muslim or Armenians. It’s similar to the plight of Mexicans. They are either illegal or legal. That does not mean one half is bad and the other side good. Of all the Muslims that enter American borders a few are radicals but most are good people. We want the good Muslims to come to America but we need some time to devise a fail safe means to indentify the difference.

  6. YYC says:

    They want everyone to think this bc they fear Trump.. They fear him bc business as usual will not be the case when he gets into office. There is zero illegal about what he is suggesting… Even the FBI knows the refugees aren’t being vetted…it’s time to stop and pause and rethink what we ware doing before we pay for it in spades

  7. Markingthedays says:

    But ARE we at war? Has our President petitioned Congress to declare war against a sovereign nation? If so, please show me ISIS on the map.

  8. Cicero Vicious says:

    Hmmm – not really sure where to start. I guess first – facts: Do you have any bibliography at all for your cites? Next, it would be good to at least pretend to be aware that the 14th amendment discusses three different classes of individuals and does assign to them different protections. For example, only citizens are afforded protection from the abridgment of privileges and immunities whereas all persons are guaranteed due process. However, when it comes to equal protection, only persons subject to US jurisdiction are covered. Immigrants seeking entry are not yet subject to in-personam jurisdiction, hence the 14th would not apply to this Trump situation. Further, Congress could do exactly what Trump has proposed without running afoul of the Constitution whatsoever.

    Nonetheless, your article, if factually accurate, does little to combat the reality that a liberal democrat – one who many lefties today hold as something of a saint – attempted to do something far worse than what Trump stated re: closing the borders to all Muslims YET lefties do not care about making that incredibly relevant fact part of their discussion. I know why this is – it’s because they’re disingenuous and cannot make any rational argument – but I guess how about here – are you able to make one?

    Maybe it would help to reverse the situation. Let’s say just after Bush launched his errant campaign against Iraq, the French decided they were not going to admit any American foreign nationals into France or any of her territories. Would they be allowed to do that on either legal or moral grounds?

    HINT: The answer is YES.

  9. Cicero Vicious says:

    So let’s just ask the direct question. We know that from the perspective of the terrorists, this is a holy war – hopefully you will not argue against that simple fact. Next, if we are unable to pre-determine which non-citizen muslims coming into America might be intending to do harm, then you are saying closing the border to all Muslims is a bad idea? So in essence, you say that even if we can’t pre-determine, then too bad – let them in unless they’re otherwise disqualified? You really believe that???

    How is that remotely responsible in terms of protecting Americans???

  10. Barbara says:

    Judge Green’s decision was overturned by a 3 judge panel of the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals deferred to the President’s judgment of conditions that prevailed in foreign countries, specifically, the country of Iran. The acts that President Carter took were specifically directed at Iranian nationals for the purpose of putting pressure on the government of the nation of Iran to release more than 60 U.S. hostages taken from the United States’ Embassy in Iran. What Trump is doing would be like banning all Catholics from entering the U.S. if the Irish Republican Army had behaved like IS during “the Troubles.” (Would that more American political candidates had the British appreciation of understatement.)

  11. Lancer says:

    Oh how the left likes to change history to meet their failed, abysmal policies!

    Jimmy Carter gutted our intelligence community. He then issued executive order 11905, forbidding us from assassinating dirt bags.

    In the movie Argo, directed and starring leftwing nut Ben Affleck, the opening explains that the US and British backed Shah….had 3,000 political prisoners. Carter, himself, has said this was a main reason why he relinquished US support of the Shah.

    What the left completely ignores? When Carter allowed the Khomeini to re-enter Iran…it began the ultra-violent Islamic terrorism we see today. Khomeini’s followers took US hostages. Then, his brutal regime lined tens of thousands of Iranian political dissidents against the wall and killed them.

    As a result of Carter’s spineless foreign policy, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Tens of thousands more killed. Carter’s response to the Soviet Unions aggression? Boycotting the Moscow Olympics on 1980…complete appeasement! Yep…let’s just give the communists all the gold medals, as well!

    Because of Carter’s completely moronic leftist policies, Iran attacked Iraq. Hundreds of thousands more dead. Iran’s backing of Hamas and every other violent Islamic terrorist faction.

    Democrat Jimmy Carter, proof that the consequence of failed policies effect us decades later. It’s really disconcerting when one takes into consideration the abysmal policies and choices made by our current failure, President Barack Hussein 0bama.

  12. Just me says:

    Not on the trump band wagon BUT he has a valid point. That point is why not have a better vetting proses for people coming from parts of the world that HATE everything we are and it is not parts of the world but a specific “religion” that is at the root of that hatred? We should be letting in the true refugees from that part of the mid east and that would be the Christians and other non muslims who are at true fear of extermination by the islamists.

  13. scoff the cuff says:

    And help one another.
    Love and Aloha

  14. Lin says:

    I’ll say this back to you again.
    We are being threatened by Isis and the caliphate and those who have chosen to buy into their ideology both here and abroad. The physical territory they control is big as is the number of hearts and minds sprinkled in among us that now contain the radical ideology.

    It is the president and administration that is breaking our laws and not enforcing our constitution. We are a sovereign nation whose president allowed millions to jump the line. We all see what opening borders have done to the situation in Europe. Without immigration of people that actually want to assimilate, want to be Americans, all we will have is turmoil conflict and now violence. Islam is not just a religion where people go into a building to worship, it is an ideology, a culture, a social structure a threat of violence to non believers. Death, rape, slavery await for non/believers. Why do they come here in the first place? Before you and your talking point buddies jump on me, I’m well aware that all Muslims are not violent, and I had a close friend who was Muslim growing up but the threat now is from Muslim extremists, no Christians cutting off heads today. Read the muslim history from the 7th century. Trump causing hate? Can’t blame him for centuries of history. No America then either — it is rooted in their ideology. Again, why are immigrants coming here?

    I will not do the self flagellation thing. I believe in America.

    Environmental concerns — I care about our air & water, etc. In the 70s we were going to have global freezing now climate change. You say 95% believe whatever — government paid scientists or those dependent on grants? I don’t agree that it is all man made and certainly we are not a big violator. Check out Chinese violations. More importantly, our president and AG should not put environment over our safety today. In a Charlie Rose interview on PBS former CIA Dep Director says that Barack Obama didn’t ok the bombing of Isis oil transportation infrastructure until recently because he was concerned about environmental damage. Ridiculous.

    When will reality hit home to the president?
    Human rights abuses mean nothing to him when it is Christians and Jews as victims? I read .4% of refugees are Christians — I guess there aren’t too many left in the Middle East.

    Obviously I don’t think 2 wrongs make a right but we are where we are today, let’s protect ourselves for the future, not play the blame game. Do you know about bias confirmation? — when your ideology prevents you from seeing anything except that which confirms your own bias. That is a big problem with media today.

    Because a law is overturned doesn’t mean it is bad.

    Because an executive order is issued doesn’t make it righteous.

    Let’s debate ideas not pick apart each other.

  15. Dan. White says:

    This sawing of sawdust in these posts are a waste…sorry folks.
    PresidentCarter is a very nice guy, but his fear of more aggressive actions against
    Muzlims back then is actually the reasons we are in this mess now. Added to his fear of ticking off The USSR AND CHINAmade for a very weak resistance for us and great rudeness by the true Iran.

    These have to be admitted before we can find ourselves rid of these
    Cultists and terrorists.
    Again, he had zero support from red or blue…he was lost regardless of decision.
    Our gutless administrations….now traitorous…..revolution is available by constitution!

  16. Sherry says:

    As I mentioned, President Jimmy Carter did make a mistake. . . but repeating those kinds of mistakes begins to sound like the definition of insanity. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu has disagreed with Trump’s call to discriminate against 1.6 BILLION people on our planet. . . and will not be meeting with Trump!

    Debating further with religious zealots and climate change deniers who are already terrorized, panicked, xenophobic, bigoted, irrational ideologues is a complete waste of my time an energy!

    I’ve got joyful holiday FUN and extensive European summer travels to plan! HO! HO! HO!

  17. just me says:

    don’t ya just love the name calling from the left when they have no way of logically debating their positions IE ~
    Debating further with religious zealots and climate change deniers who are already terrorized, panicked, xenophobic, bigoted, irrational ideologues is a complete waste of my time an energy! ~

    Its a common tactic of the left to vilify those they disagree with. they try to move the undecided to their point of view and silent any who appose them with terms like ~ “religious zealots (as if non religious leftists are not zealots themselves) and climate change deniers ( that is likening to those who say the holocaust never happened)

  18. Alan-Dallas says:


    This goes far beyond Carter. We can trace this back all the way to FDR’s internment of US citizens, being of Japanese decent, banning all German and Italian travelers to the United States.

    You keep bringing climate change into a politics discussion so I must ask you why you keep referring to 95% of scientists instead of 95% of the 77 scientists polled about climate change. In the Science world there are nearly 2.2 million scientists actually working. I would love to see the poll that says 95 (actually the percentage is 97% by Al Gore) would mean that 2.134 MILLION scientists agree. That is not the case. We would have been over run with books/shows/articles all showing this enormous amount of science data pointing to this theory.

    I’d rather leave climate out of this discussion.

    During you summer travels, will you be flying? :-)

    Merry Christmas. Happy New year.

  19. mike says:


    i am more concerned about a terrorist attack in my city tomorrow than something that might kill us all maybe 100 years from now (climate change). lets prioritize at take care of the pressing problem 1st.

  20. Dan potter says:

    My problem is that I was not there when the world was created. I was not there when the Third Reich controlled all of Europe. Neither was I in Kuwait when people were brutally murdered by Iraq soldiers. But I am in America and see innocent people killed by radicals. It not only could happen here….it is happening here. We need to close our borders tighter than a politician covers up the truth.

  21. Hammock says:

    When Carter left office Iran still had the 60 hostages. Reagan was elected and before he had time to organize his office the Iranians released the hostages. They knew that Reagan would make their country into a big parking lot if they didn’t.

    Thomas Jefferson sent the marine’s to Libya to stop the Muslim Barbary pirates. They weren’t like the other pirates at the time. They killed all captured Christians. Nothing has changed.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Jimmy Carter got outsmarted by Castro who maneuvered him easily into admitting a huge influx of Cuban wannabe immigrants into the country all in one shot. Castro correctly perceived Carter’s weak spot–Carter has a burning need to visualize himself as the most moral human being who lived while maintaining an ego which is less than saintly in size and proportion. Unfortunately, there were a fair number of Cubans who were coincidentally released from prisons and mental health facilities, just in time to get on the boats. Hopefully, Obama is not trying to prove the same. BY the way, Saint Jimmy Carter is an evangelical Anti-Semite. He is taking a drug for his brain cancer which he told his church group has cured him–that, ironically was developed by Israeli scientists.

  23. Kevingt says:

    The article is spot-on and the comments show vast ignorance. As the article points out, Jimmy Carter did not ban Muslims. He did not target any one religion. He banned Iranians because Iran was holding US citizens hostage. He banned Christian Iranians. He banned Jewish Iranians. He banned Muslim Iranians. He banned atheist Iranians. They were banned because they were Iranian – not because of their religion. Trump is banning all members of a religion regardless of where they come from. When Trump says “A total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the US” then he is banning Canadian Muslims, British Muslims, French Muslims, Chinese Muslims, Danish Muslims, Polish Muslims, etc. That’s impossible. You can’t ban a religion. There is no religious test to get a visa or a passport. It’s an ignorant statement by Trump. Since visas and passports are issued based on your COUNTRY and not on your RELIGION, you can ban all people from a certain country (like Carter did) but there is no country where everyone is the same religion. It’s an ignorant assertion by an ignorant person.

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