March 7, 2017 | By Sara McElmurry

Updated Immigration Policies Will Keep Us Safer Than Updated Travel Bans

On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order barring travel to the United States from six Muslim-majority countries. The order is a scaled-back version of a similar travel ban issued in January, which was blocked by federal judges. Yet its central tenant—the misguided notion that sealing off our borders will shield the country from terrorism and other security threats—hasn’t changed.

The new executive order strikes Iraq from the list of other Muslim-majority nations—Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—included in the first ban. Citizens of these countries will be blocked from entering the United States for 90 days. While the ban does not apply to current visa holders and legal permanent residents—a point of critical confusion in the first version of the order—it does include refugees. In fact, all refugee admissions will be suspended for 120 days, and the number the United States will accept for resettlement will be halved once the program is resumed.

Overall, the revised order remains remarkably unchanged in the face of mounting evidence indicating that the citizens of the targeted countries pose no identifiable threats to national security. Nor have threats been found among refugees, who are subject to an exhaustive screening process before entering the United States. Since 2001, just 36 Muslim extremists have engaged in attacks in the United States. Half of them were born in the United States; none came from banned nations. What’s more, a study from the right-leaning Cato Institute confirms that no refugees resettled in the United States have been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since 1980.

In the best-case scenario, the ban will do little to address national security; at worse, it could actually compromise these efforts. Singling out Muslim-majority nations and reinforcing terrorists’ propaganda about Islamophobia in the west; blocking refugees discourages their support of international anti-terrorism efforts.

Instead of updating travel bans, the Trump administration should update immigration policy if it truly wants to boost national security.

Our immigration system is already an integral part of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) security apparatus, effectively vetting the hundreds of thousands of immigrants, refugees, and visitors that enter our country every day. But there is ample room to update the system to address  evolving threats.  A report I coauthored with colleagues from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Bipartisan Policy Center details how immigration reforms could bolster national security:

  • Reducing the size of the “haystack” that obscures security threats. Studies confirm that the country’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants pose minimal security risk—but because of their sheer numbers, they distract DHS efforts to root out true threats.  A pathway to citizenship can help the government screen and document these unknown individuals, allowing the government to focus security resources where they are needed most.
  • Tackling unvetted immigration by opening more legal immigration channels. Experts believe that the best way to stem unauthorized immigration—and the security risks that come with it—is to expand channels for legal immigration. Updating visa channels to allow people to work in high-demand fields and reunite with family members alleviates pressures that drive much of the current unauthorized immigration.
  • Discouraging the visa overstays that add to the unauthorized population. An estimated 400,000 people overstayed their visas in 2015—and the fact that our visa entry and exit systems aren’t connected means that these people largely go undetected. Immigration reforms can mandate the completion of a comprehensive system to locate those visitors who overstay their visas.
  • Helping immigrants help local law enforcement. When local police are tasked with the enforcement of federal immigration laws, immigrant communities are reluctant to report crimes and support investigations. Updated policies and enforcement priorities can improve collaboration between federal agents, local police, and the communities they serve.
  • Informing sound investments in border security. Data can help the government prioritize investments in border technology and agents, but there are currently no standard metrics to measure border strategies and outcomes. Immigration reform can mandate the creation of these critical metrics.

Immigration reform holds much promise for national security, but it will require President Trump to champion bipartisan reforms through Congress instead of going at it alone with executive orders.  Instead of putting his energy behind building a “better” ban, Trump should do the most for our security by digging in to a long-overdue overhaul of our immigration system. 


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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