“Being able to come to America is a privilege, not a right,” White House spokesmen Sean Spicer said at a recent news conference.
Spicer defended President Donald Trump’s order that halts Syrian refugees indefinitely, blocks all refugee admissions for four months and bans citizens of seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen — from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days.
The order — now on hold by the courts — ignited protests insisting that no terrorists from these countries had killed anyone in this country.
It also prompted a now-fired acting-attorney general to direct Justice Department lawyers not to defend the directive. Federal courts too are having their say with the purpose of defining the scope of the president’s authority. More than two dozen lawsuits are now pending.
But it was a right “first step,” as Spicer termed it.
Countries may eventually be added to the ban and some may be taken off, restrictions may be more narrowly tailored and some relaxed. But in the end, it was the right decision for several reasons.
All countries named in the directive are known as “specially designated countries” or “SDCs” — nations that promote, produce and protect terrorism. Thirty-six countries populate this list. Three of them — Iran, Sudan and Syria — are state sponsors of terrorism, according to the State Department.
That the directive narrowly identified seven countries out of the 36 as posing greater threat can easily be second-guessed but not easily disregarded. Facts and history line up with the White House. A U.S. Senate report from 2016 sheds light here.
From 2001 through 2014, 580 people were convicted in the U.S. of terrorism-related offenses. At least 380 of them — some 65 percent — were foreign-born. Only 76 people —20 percent of the group — came from countries outside the SDCs. Since 2001, 40 individuals entering the U.S. claiming refugee status were implicated in terrorist plots.
A profile of al-Qaida incidents in the U.S. is just as revealing as it is troubling.
Of the 171 al-Qaida operatives who committed terrorist acts between 1997 and 2011, 63 percent were born outside the U.S. From this group of foreign-born terrorists, some 94 people — 85 percent — were born in SDC countries.
Nearly a third of this group became citizens before launching their schemes. Ominously, their trips back to their home countries didn’t always alert U.S. authorities to risks the executive order seeks to minimize.
The order’s purpose is broad and far reaching. It’s not intended to congest airports, frustrate legitimate travel or penalize the blameless. It’s intended to immediately harden our borders against threats offered by those traveling to and from places with tangible ties to terrorism.
That’s why searching social media sites on cell phones carried by those who entered the U.S. from these countries two weekends ago made sense.
America is a magnet. More than 80 million people visited here in 2016 and each was stopped at a Homeland Security checkpoint before entry. Nearly all were required to produce a visa. None possessed an inherent right to cross our borders without first declaring their identity, purpose of their visit, where they planned to stay, and how long they would stay. Few are exempt from these basics.
That nationals of some countries may be prohibited from entry consistent with a demonstrated incidence of risk clearly falls within the president’s authority to impose. Though some fine-tuning to the executive order may be necessary, it asserts an imperative that national security will not be compromised.
Risk, like opportunity, abounds from the fluid movement of people across the globe. Threats to the U.S. from any group of persons — whether visitors, students, refugees, permanent residents or naturalized citizens — is difficult to predict, but in the current state of world affairs not hard to identify.
Drug cartels seek access to American traffickers and their buyers. Alien smugglers want American dollars for their human cargo. Chinese spies holding business visas — like the Soviet spies before them — attempt theft of American high-tech secrets. Extremist Islam has its objectives, too.
Inserting its operatives into the backdrop of Syrian refugees, radicalizing immigrants or inspiring lone wolves to attack an office party in San Bernardino or a gay nightclub in Orlando are predicates to future tragedy and malign attempts to tear our national fabric and diminish us.
This evil reminds us there should be no entitlements at our borders, only accountability.
Mark H. Metcalf, Garrard County attorney, served in several posts at the Justice and Defense departments under George W. Bush, including at the Miami Immigration Court.