In a statement on Sunday, President Donald Trump defended his executive order temporarily barring nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries by invoking a policy set by former President Barack Obama in 2011.
“My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months,” the statement said. “The seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror.”
But lawyers and former Obama administration officials have since criticized the comparison, arguing that the 2011 immigration restrictions, during which Obama administration slowed its processing of Iraqi refugee applications, was fundamentally different in intent and logistics. Politifact rated the comparison “mostly false,” saying Trump’s ban was much broader than the previous administration’s and did not respond to a specific threat.
The Obama administration instituted the policy following the discovery that two men suspected of making bombs to target American troops in Iraq were living in Kentucky as refugees, ABC News reported in 2013.
Here’s how the two policies compare:
Obama did not “ban visas for refugees from Iraq for six months,” as Trump said — refugees don’t travel on visas. Rather, the Obama administration dramatically slowed the processing of refugee requests and “Special Immigrant Visas,” meant for Iraqi interpreters who helped US forces, while it expanded its screening procedures.
During that time, the Obama administration also reexamined 58,000 Iraqi refugees who had already been admitted to the US, according to a 2012 congressional hearing. New Iraqi refugees were continuously admitted throughout the year, albeit at a much slower pace than usual.
According to data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, 6,339 Iraqi refugees arrived in the US in 2011 — fewer than half the numbers admitted in 2010 and in 2012.
“While the flow of refugees slowed significantly during the Obama administration’s review, refugees continued to be admitted to the United States during that time, and there was not a single month in which no Iraqis arrived here,” Jon Finer, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry and was the director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote in Foreign Policy.
Another former Obama administration official, Eric Schwartz, the former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, also disputed Trump’s comparison between the two policies.
“For several months in 2011, there was a lower level of Iraqi resettlement, as the government implemented certain security enhancements … there was never a point during that period in which Iraqi resettlement was stopped, or banned,” Schwartz told The Washington Post.
The 2011 policy targeted a narrow group of individuals: refugees and Special Immigrant Visa applicants from Iraq. In contrast, Trump’s order casts a wide net, excluding millions of people across seven countries from nearly every type of available visa.
The reasoning underlying the two presidents’ policies is also a big difference.
The justification behind Trump’s order was broadly described as to “protect the United States from foreign nationals entering from countries compromised by terrorism” and to implement “a more rigorous vetting process.”
Trump’s order appears proactive, preempting a potential attack, while Obama’s 2011 policy was reactive, responding to a specific threat: the two Iraqi refugees who had managed to resettle in Kentucky.
The men had lied about previous terrorism ties on their paperwork for refugee status, ABC News reported. In response, the Obama administration reviewed the related vetting procedures, including checking applicants and resettled refugees against certain databases and reviewing biographic and biometric information, according to the congressional hearing.
“Obama’s policy tended to prioritize people who had been convicted of specific criminal offenses or about whom the US government had specific knowledge that suggested the person was a threat,” Stefanie Fisher, a Boston-based immigration attorney at Araujo & Fisher LLC, told Business Insider.
“It was not based on nationality.”
Trump is correct, however, that the seven countries named in his executive order had been previously identified by the Obama administration.
Those countries were named in a 2015 law that revised the US visa-waiver program to “respond to the growing threat from foreign terrorist fighters,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. But the policy did not bar the countries’ nationals — it required travelers who had visited those countries since 2011 to apply for a US visa before entering.