How Trump’s Executive Order on Refugees Devalues the American Passport

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In an era when national allegiance is bought and sold, the benefits (and values) of a United States passport are as fragile as ever.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The American government has always held its passport as a symbol of global prestige, a badge of that sense of exceptionalism that drives the geopolitical dealings of the United States. Now, President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees will only devalue what was once a symbol of not just national power, but pride.

Just over a decade ago, the U.S. passport was ranked the most powerful in the world (next to Denmark and Finland) on the Visa Restrictions Index of travel freedom published by Henley & Partners, the “global citizenship and residence advisory firm” with a watchful eye on the global citizenship market. By 2010, the U.S. passport’s ranking had declined to seventh place before finally returning to first place in 2014; as of 2016, it sits at fourth place. A similar index published by Arton Capital puts the U.S. passport at third in the world. Only German, Sweden, and Singaporerank higher — and Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Afghanistan rank among the worst.

The value of the American passport has vacillated over the last few years, and Trump’s recent executive orders will likely precipitate another decline. On Friday, the president ordered a four-month ban on admitting refugees into the U.S., as well as a three-month prohibition on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Like his Wednesday executive order targeting “sanctuary cities,” the temporary ban makes good on a campaign trail promise — the so-called “Muslim ban” that Trump vowed would root out (or at least exclude) foreign terrorists. (On Saturday, a New York federal judge issued a temporary stay allowing foreign travelers ensnared at customs to enter the U.S. despite the president’s executive order.)

The executive order isn’t unprecedented in terms of policy — the Visa Waiver Improvement Act, introduced in 2015, prohibited citizens from 38 countries who share citizenship with Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Iraq from entering the U.S. without a visa — but it’s already rife with immediate problems. Dual citizens (say, someone with both United Kingdom and Iraqi citizenship, such as one conservative member of the British Parliament) are also affected by the ban, according to Department of State officials, and some British and Canadian citizens have already been affected. Even worse, ProPublica reports that the language used by Trump will also bar entry into the U.S. for more than 500,000 people who have received green cards from those seven target countries in the last 10 years, as well as an additional 25,000 citizens in the country on student or work visas in the last few years.

“Legally speaking, green card holders are considered aliens,” ProPublica’s Marcelo Rochabrun reports. “While lawyers are unsure if they would actually be barred from reentering the U.S. if they have traveled abroad, they conceded it’s a possibility.”

This is a whole lot of unjustified trouble for innocent civilians. There have been no fatal terror attacks by immigrants from the seven countries targeted by Trump’s Muslim ban, according to the Huffington Post; meanwhile, Muslim-majority countries exempted from his ban (like, say, Saudi Arabia) are places where Trump has (or has pursued) business through his namesake conglomerate. Analysis by the Cato Institute suggests that the chances of being murdered by an illegal immigrant or refugee, terrorist attack or not, are incredibly low. As ThinkProgress pointed out in 2015, only three of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks were arrested for engaging in terrorist activities, all three plots of which involved attacks on foreign soil; by contrast, the perpetrators of major domestic terrorist attacks — like those in Orlando and San Bernardino — overwhelmingly tend to be American citizens. (European countries, on the other hand, do have issues with fraudulent passports.)

This is a huge mistake for the Trump administration, and not just because it’s Draconian theater inflicted on on a statistically harmless population that includes legal residents. In retaliation for the ban, the government of Iran announced on Saturday that it would prevent U.S. citizens from entering the country as part of a “principle of reciprocity” against the Iranian visa ban, Reuters reports—a particularly sour turn in diplomatic relations that had seen a thaw following a historic phone call between President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 (and the subsequent Iran nuclear deal). In Iraq, members of Parliament are reportedly considering blocking visas for all Americans.

While the moves by Iran and Iraq are somewhat expected, a larger trend in visa conflicts would put the value of the U.S. passport at risk. The Hanley & Partners and Arton Capital indices of passport power are all based on the idea that a person in possession of a passport can travel the world unmolested by visa restrictions, a true “global citizen” despite maintaining roots at home. Could ostensibly democratic friends of the U.S. eventually express their disgust toward Trump’s executive order through other full-fledged visa changes?

It’s unlikely, but certainly a possibility, that other nations will seek to pursue retaliatory action. World leaders, including German and French officials who face their own set of unique political challenges when it comes to immigrants from the Middle East, are already decrying the Trump administration’s crackdown as a blow to international refugee resettlement operations. “The needs of refugees and migrants worldwide have never been greater and the U.S. resettlement program is one of the most important in the world,” wrote the United Nations High Council on Refugees and the International Organization for Migration in a joint statement, per Al Jazeera. Canada and Scotland even rolled out the welcome mat for displaced refugees.

But the damage to the American passport doesn’t just stem from Trump’s executive order as a form of isolationist policing— it’s also because this travel ban is a stunning act of cruelty. Consider reports that members of the Yazidi ethnic group currently fleeing genocide at the hands of ISIS are being turned away at the border. Consider that, among the 10 travelers detained at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, is a 10-month-old — certainly too young for an ISIS youth club. Or that a nine-year-old girl traveled to Dallas-Fort Worth international airport with a “Grandma, welcome home” sign, only to find that her 77-year-old grandmother had been turned back to Iraq. The ban has already sparked a massive protest at New York City’s John F. Kennedy airport, where several Arab passport countries were prohibited from moving through U.S. customs. There have been similar protests around the rest of country, including at Boston’s Logan Airport and the San Francisco International Airport.

That we think of a passport as a tool with value may seem counter-intuitive, but citizenship two millennia after Paul the Apostle’s diplomatic invincibility is “changing, changeable, interchangeable,” as Cosmopolites author Atossa Araxia Abrahamian wrote in 2015: “New crises explode the old mythologies of national power, and take personal allegiances with them.” The erosion of America’s diplomatic standing and the desecration of the U.S. passport’s strong image would only degrade America’s power abroad, both as a nation and as a nationality. Even Trump’s allies know this: Just ask Peter Thiel, who locked down dual citizenship in New Zealand so that he, like thousands of other “global citizens,” might avoid the burdens of public life in the U.S.

If there’s any silver lining to Trump’s executive action, it’s that it may catalyze the biggest reshaping of global refugee policy since the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention; perhaps it will even result in something like a universal passport, not unlike the international passports established by the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I. But until then, the Trump administration’s travel ban has simply thrown global travel into disarray.