On Friday, Donald Trump signed an executive order (EO) that halts refugee admissions for 120 days and halts travel from seven countries—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia—for 90 days while the federal government reviews admission procedures.
Upon resumption of refugee admissions, the EO promises to prioritize claims by persecuted religious minorities, a provision Trump said was designed to include Middle East Christians. To those of us who advocate for these Christians, this was heartening news. While most Western media, policymakers, and publics continue to ignore the plight of Middle East Christians, their situation is truly dire. Trump’s statement meant they were finally getting attention at the highest level of the U.S. government.
To say the EO ignited a firestorm would be an understatement. The situation over the weekend was chaos. Legal challenges culminated in (to date) four court orders that put parts of the EO on hold. The EO faced mounting congressional criticism from both sides of the aisle. Protesters swamped airports to protest the restrictions and welcome newly arrived travelers.
Social media exploded, too. My Twitter and Facebook feeds erupted with a mix of moralistic hand-wringing and sanctimonious virtue-signaling. Precious few actually assessed the EO on its merits.
Most disheartening of all, Western Christians and Christian organizations—almost unanimously—denounced Trump’s promise to prioritize persecuted religious minorities in refugee admissions. Prominent among these was World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, which said it opposed “any measure” that discriminates based on religion. World Relief Vice President Jenny Yang even claimed that preferring Christians “actually perpetuates the risk they face.” She didn’t explain why.
Comments like these were a boon to left-leaning media outlets. After gleefully noting that Christians leaders were “outraged,” the New York Times went on to equate prioritizing Christians with Islamophobia and shamelessly downplayed Christians’ plight as based on “conspiracy theories.” Noticeably absent from any of this reporting were inquiries to individuals and organizations that actually work on behalf of Middle East Christians, many of whom are associated with this magazine.
Prioritizing the most persecuted in refugee admissions is not only the right thing to do. It’s something we already do. Religious minorities, particularly Yezidis and Christians in Iraq and Syria, deserve the same priority status that is currently accorded to other groups facing unique dangers, including religious minorities in Iran and elsewhere, and Iraqis who assisted U.S. forces.
Prioritizing the vulnerable in U.S. refugee policy
Under both international and U.S. law, a refugee is a person fleeing his or her home country because of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Even at the most basic, definitional level, a refugee includes a person who has suffered or is likely to suffer religious persecution. To be eligible for admission, most refugees have to demonstrate that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution” on one of the identified bases.
Every year, the President, in consultation with Congress, establishes the “refugee ceiling,” the maximum number of refugees that will be admitted to the United States that year. The President then allocates sub-totals to different regions of the world and, within those regions, establishes “processing priorities.” So-called “Priority 2” or “P2” status consists of identifiable groups of people who are of “special humanitarian concern” to the United States. The executive branch establishes the P2 categories based on “compelling humanitarian concerns,” among other factors.
The law requires the President to allocate refugee admissions to the established P2 categories. In other words, the law requires that certain groups be given priority in refugee admissions based on their humanitarian situation.
The current P2 categories include religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and other groups whose humanitarian situation is especially concerning.
- Religious minorities in Iran: Iran is the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism and is notorious for its persecution of religious minorities. President Obama’s 2016 report to Congress on proposed refugee admissions noted that “Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Sufis, Jews, Zoroastrians, Yaresanis, and Christians continue to face official discrimination, harassment, and arrest” in Iran. Most American Christians know the story of Pastor Saeed Abedini, who spent over 3 years in Iranian prison where he was beaten and pressured to recant his Christian faith. Iranian religious minorities have P2 status in refugee admissions. Since the United States doesn’t have direct diplomatic relations with Iran, refugee applications are processed in partnership with the government of Austria.
- Iraqis associated with the United States: Iraqis who assisted U.S. forces and U.S. contractors during Operation Iraqi Freedom faced unique persecution after the draw-down of U.S. forces. Many fled Iraq in fear of being killed or injured. The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act (part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008) gave P2 status to these Iraqis. The original version of the Act, introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy, noted the “the United States has a fundamental obligation to help the vast number of Iraqis displaced in Iraq and throughout the region by the war and the associated chaos, especially those who have supported America’s efforts in Iraq.”
- Other religious minorities: Jews and evangelical Christians in the former Soviet Union who have close family in the United States not only have P2 status, but are also subject to a reduced evidentiary standard for demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution. Also included in the P2 designation are persecuted religious minorities and political dissidents in Cuba.
Each of these categories has a common thread: the identified group is uniquely vulnerable to persecution due to religious or political beliefs. Other P2 categories focus on populations who are especially vulnerable based on their ethnic status (like Rohingya refugees from Burma and Bhutanese from Nepal) or the dire humanitarian situation they face (like Congolese fleeing the bloodshed in their homeland, a crisis CNN once described as one of the most horrific in the world).
Religious minorities in Iraq and Syria deserve the same priority treatment in refugee admissions because they have suffered unique persecution for their faith. Indeed, Senator Kennedy’s description in 2007 of U.S.-associated Iraqis—underscoring the “vast number…displaced in Iraq and throughout the region by the war and the associated chaos”—is an apt description of the plight of Christians and Yezidis. These groups likewise have been killed and forced to flee their homes because of targeted persecution and the Iraqi government’s inability to protect them.
In March 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry described what was happening to Christians, Yezidis, and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria as genocide. Obama’s 2016 report to Congress on refugee admissions noted that in Iraq, “some of these religious communities, along with their ancient languages and customs, are on the verge of disappearing.” While the report curiously doesn’t identify these disappearing “religious communities” specifically, they are, of course, Iraqi Christians and Yezidis. (Shia comprise the majority in Iraq, and they are not in danger of disappearing.)
In late 2015, Obama famously said that, when it comes to refugees, “We don’t have a religious test for our compassion.” And in the heated aftermath of Trump’s EO, many, including many Christians, have echoed that sentiment. But this is both demonstrably false and morally obtuse. Refugee law, by definition, includes a religious test, and U.S. law prioritizes religious minorities of special humanitarian concern around the world.
And this is as it should be. Americans pride themselves on directing their aid and compassion to the world’s most vulnerable populations, be they ethnic, political, religious, or otherwise. It’s a policy rooted in Christ’s teaching about compassion for the “least of these” (as Obama often reminded us).
Right now, the “least of these” include persecuted Christians and Yezidis in the Middle East. Americans, and especially American Christians, must recognize that. We must prioritize the most persecuted. To continue to ignore them is to perpetuate their persecution. And with respect to Middle East Christians in particular, dismissing and downplaying their plight only exacerbates the de facto discrimination they already face in both reconstruction assistance and U.S. refugee admissions.
While Trump is right to prioritize religious minorities in refugee admissions, there are critical questions about the EO that the White House needs to answer.
First, does the EO’s preference for persecuted religious minorities include groups other than Christians? So far, Trump has spoken only of Christians.
U.S. policy absolutely must continue to prioritize vulnerable religious minorities regardless of their particular creed. In Iraq, Yezidis have suffered along with (and indeed, perhaps more so) than their Christian neighbors. And as already noted, P2 status for religious minorities in Iran currently encompasses not only Christians and Jews, but also Sunnis and Sufis, both of which are minority Muslim sects in Shia-majority Iran.
All of these groups should continue to be prioritized in refugee admissions (subject, of course, to proper vetting). Doing so would go a long way to show that Trump’s EO is not a “Muslim ban,” but a temporary halt to reevaluate legitimate U.S. security needs.
It would also be consistent with advancing long-term U.S. security and humanitarian interests. Our commitment to religious freedom abroad and at home, and our assistance to beleaguered minorities around the world, promotes respect for conscience, human dignity, equality, and rule of law. For the United States, compassion and security have never been mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand.
Second, what is the status of Syrian refugees under the EO? Last year, the United States admitted 12,600 Syrian refugees, but less than 1% of these were Christians even though Christians made up 10% of Syria’s pre-civil war population. Trump’s EO halts all Syrian refugee admissions to the United States indefinitely. But his remarks over the weekend suggest that Syrian refugees won’t be categorically banned from the United States. I certainly hope that’s true, and I hope that Syrian Christians will be fairly represented among them.
Finally, the Trump administration must address the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq. Most of the Iraqi Christians who fled the Islamic State genocide did not cross an international border. They temporarily settled in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they face continued economic, health, and security challenges. While international law doesn’t recognize IDPs as refugees, under U.S. law, the President can grant refugee status to IDPs if, after consultation with Congress, he determines that their situation is of “grave humanitarian concern.”
President Jimmy Carter did this in 1980 for 3,500 Cubans who had sought refuge in the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. The provision was also used by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush for refugees—primarily Christians and Jews—from the former USSR, and by President Bill Clinton for Kosovar Albanians in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars. Currently, U.S. law treats U.S.-associated Iraqis (those who assisted U.S. forces) as refugees even if they remain in Iraq.
The same treatment should be accorded to internally displaced religious minorities in Iraq. Following the lead of Republican and Democratic presidents before him, Trump should designate the Iraqi situation as of “grave humanitarian concern” and allow religious minorities there to apply directly for U.S. refugee admissions.
Loving our neighbors
The temporary halt in refugee admissions by the Trump EO is not without precedent in the Obama era. And the seven countries specified in the travel ban weren’t selected by the Trump administration. They were selected by the Obama administration almost a year ago for targeted travel restrictions because of the “threat of foreign fighters” who might infiltrate the United States.
It’s true that Trump’s EO is more draconian than both of these precedents. As the National Review noted, some of the unfortunate fallout—like confusion over green-card holders and travelers en route to the United States—“could have been avoided if the White House had slowed down, taken time to brief the officials responsible for carrying out the order, and ensured that the legal details were airtight.”
But the histrionics from politicians, journalists, and even religious leaders is plainly overwrought. In a popular Facebook post, California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom compared the EO to the “atrocities” of the Holocaust. That kind of false equivalence is shocking and morally repugnant. It’s also tragically ironic since the actual atrocities committed against Christians, Yezidis, and other Middle East minorities—atrocities that Trump’s EO actually seeks to address—continue to be ignored across the Western political and religious spectrum.
My hope over the coming weeks is that the Trump administration will clarify its order in key respects, that cooler heads will prevail, and that we—especially we Christians—will shoulder the task of good citizens: a sober balancing of our need for national security and the imperatives of our Christ-centered compassion. Both of these, after all, are forms of loving our neighbors.
Ian Speir is an attorney to churches and religious organizations, chancellor to an Anglican diocese, and coauthor of the “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East” report submitted to Secretary Kerry on March 9, 2016. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo Credit: Kine Haji, 37, ran with her children from her village near Sinjar city in Nineveh Province, Iraq, carrying her youngest daughter on her shoulders. Her other children ran with her, barefoot. She fled after witnessing her husband killed by ISIL troops, and in November 2014 was one of the Yazidi refugees in Turkey. Photo by Caroline Gluck for EU/ECHO, via Flickr.
* a minor edit was made following initial posting for readability.