With his Muslim ban thus far blocked by the courts, President Donald Trump is talking about another way to stop Muslims from coming to the U.S.: extreme vetting. Last week, his usual complaints about the courts included this tweet: “we are EXTREME VETTING people coming into the U.S. in order to help keep our country safe.”
Extreme vetting and the Muslim ban are cut from the same cloth. Trump introduced extreme vetting in a campaign speech, as part of his plan for stopping immigration from “Syria and Libya.” The day before the first Muslim ban executive order, Trump was asked why he hadn’t banned travel from countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, whose nationals had carried out attacks in the U.S. He answered: “We’re going to have extreme vetting in all cases. And I mean extreme.” Indeed, extreme vetting is part of his Muslim ban executive order, which a federal court of appeals has described as emanating from a “context [that] drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.”
On May 25, the State Department implemented emergency extreme vetting rules for people determined to warrant additional scrutiny but didn’t explain how these people would be identified. The department estimates that the new rules will affect 65,000 people. That’s roughly the number of visas issued to tourists, businesspeople, and students from Iran, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria, the countries targeted by the Muslim ban, suggesting that the new rules are aimed at the same pool of people.
Extreme vetting is founded on stereotypes about what Muslims believe. On the campaign trail, Trump promised, “extreme vetting… [for]… any hostile attitude towards our country or its principles, or who believed sharia law should supplant American law.” The first version of the Muslim ban singled out for rejection “those who would place violent ideologies over American law” (an obvious reference to jihad, although equally applicable to the Ku Klux Klan), honor killings (associated with Muslims, although violence against women in the name of protecting honor is prevalent in many societies), the persecution of minority religions (Trump often remarks on how badly Christians are treated in Muslim countries), and discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation (on which many Muslim countries have shameful records, as do several high level officials in the Trump administration). The second version of the ban removed many of the provisions transparently targeted at Muslims, but Trump has called it “the watered down, politically correct version.”
Social media will be used to investigate what people think. Would-be travelers are now required to list all social media handles they have used during the past five years. Consular officers will have to interpret statements that may be difficult to understand without context, often in a language they don’t speak. And they will have to figure out how to assign meaning to non-verbal communications—for example, would “following” someone mean you agree with them? It’s hard to see the security benefit here, but it’s easy to see how the new rule will squelch free speech. Those with sinister motives will just scrub their accounts, but so will people worried that their political or religious views will be misinterpreted.
Nor is this back-door Muslim ban the result of careful study. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told Fox News that the administration was “just guessing” what might work. If administration officials actually bothered to look, they would find that getting a visa to the U.S. has always been difficult, but especially since the 9/11 attacks, after which the government implemented multiple layers of national security checks. The names and identifying information of all those applying for U.S. visas are run through a number of databases that link to intelligence holdings across the government. Photographs and biometrics are run through facial recognition and other identity-verification technologies. And consular officers across the world do not hesitate to tag for further scrutiny people who raise suspicions, or deny visas on that basis. Indeed, one front-line officer told us that hearing the cautionary tale of the officer who approved visas for several of the 9/11 hijackers is part of consular onboarding.
Like the Muslim ban, extreme vetting is the product of prejudice, not proof. It signals to Muslims that they’re not welcome, and it’s working—data from this year suggests a significant decrease in visas being issued to applicants from the Muslim ban countries, as well as an overall dip in travel to the U.S. That’s not just a loss for travelers, but also for Americans who aren’t able to see family and friends, businesses that can’t recruit talent, cultural institutions that can’t bring in artists and singers, and universities that can’t recruit top Muslim students.
Above all, it’s a loss for the American ideals of diversity and freedom.