The Wide Ripples From the U.S. Immigration Ban

7 MINS READJan 31, 2017 | 03:07 GMT
The Wide Ripples from the U.S. Immigration Ban
The U.S. presidential order that banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries elicited strong responses both at airports in the United States and from leaders around the world.

U.S. President Donald Trump's executive action to ban travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries has certainly stirred the global pot. It created a bumpy situation for those trying to implement the directive and put foreign governments in a difficult position between condemning the United States and trying to stay on its good side. The order, while providing fodder to jihadist groups looking to reinforce their own war narrative, has also emboldened right-wing groups in the United States and abroad. And it has galvanized resistance among private citizens, politicians and businesses.

Within the United States, there are a few key points in the reactions to Trump's action that bear close monitoring. Falling firmly on either side of the immigration ban could be considered politically radioactive for some congressional representatives who are trying to assess their re-election prospects in a couple of years. According to the running tally from political website The Hill, so far eight Republican senators (including high-profile national security figures like Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain) and nine Republican House members have spoken up in opposition to the move; 15 Republican senators and eight House members have expressed concerns over the ban; and 40 House members have endorsed it. Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Chris Murphy, are readying legislation intended to either overturn the executive order or amend Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which broadly gives the president power to block or restrict the entry of aliens into the United States. Trump could veto legislative attempts to check his power, especially if he can be reasonably confident that Congress would be unable to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. The real test of a legislative check on Trump's presidential power will hinge on how many in the GOP end up distancing themselves from his policies as congressional members strategically pick their battles.

Reactions from abroad are equally important to watch. Iran is retaliating with its own ban on travel by U.S. citizens, while adding the caveat that those with valid Iranian visas "will be gladly welcomed." The Iraqi parliament is debating whether Baghdad should take reciprocal action, weighing the consequences of alienating a mercurial government in Washington while it is still heavily dependent on U.S. aid and in the middle of a fight against the Islamic State in coordination with a U.S.-led coalition. Meanwhile, other Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, whose citizens have been linked with U.S. terrorist attacks but were not subject to the ban, are trying to keep their heads down and avoid further U.S. scrutiny while there's still potential for the ban to expand. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies would much rather keep their dialogue with the Trump administration focused on common interests, like containing Iran.

And that is a topic that is likely to gather steam in the coming days. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani already faced a difficult situation: Trying to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal while seeking re-election in presidential elections this spring. The harder the line that U.S. policy follows on Iran and the Muslim world at large, the more politically complicated it will become at home for Rouhani to defend the working relationship he negotiated with the previous U.S. administration.

Further muddying the situation, the Iranian military conducted a test on Sunday of the Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile, its second ballistic missile test since July 2016. The test likely violates U.N. Resolution 2231, which took effect in July 2015 parallel to the finalization of the Iranian nuclear deal. It calls on Iran to refrain from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons, including launches related to ballistic missile technology. The U.N. resolution was made distinct from the JCPOA so as not to directly upset the nuclear deal, especially since Iran has consistently insisted since the JCPOA negotiations that it retains the sovereign right to continue such testing. But the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress could just as easily impose additional sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile testing. That, in turn, could be perceived by Iran as a violation of its broader understanding with the United States to ease tensions by not increasing Iran's sanctions burden. The degree to which Iranian policy will remain restrained to perceived infractions will, of course, depend on the results of Iran's upcoming election, even if Tehran's strategic interests lie in avoiding a bigger confrontation with the United States.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scheduled to visit the White House on Feb. 15, will use that visit to press for more stringent constraints on Iran's nuclear activity and associated weapons programs. Given the Trump administration's much tighter relationship with Israel and willingness to heed Israel's counsel on matters ranging from a wall with Mexico to U.S. policy on Iran, Israeli influence on the U.S. administration is one of several variables that will stress U.S.-Iranian relations and test the viability of the nuclear agreement.

The U.S. immigration ban will also have an important effect on Europe, whose own troubles with migrant flows were cited by Trump as justification for his move. Many of its political leaders are predictably assuming a more moralistic response to the ban. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande did not hesitate to condemn the move, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May did — and received a good deal of domestic backlash as a result. May must balance trying to manage those domestic pressures while trying to maintain the preferential treatment the Trump administration is giving to its transatlantic partner. After all, if the United Kingdom is to divorce itself from the European Union, then it will be essential for London to keep a free trade agreement with the United States on a fast track. Merkel, meanwhile, already wary that Trump's free trade philosophy will accelerate the demise of the eurozone, must worry that any moralistic positions Europe takes to stand up to U.S. policies like the immigrant ban could further sour its future engagements with Washington at a sensitive time for the European Union's economic health and security concerns with Russia.

The national security argument behind Trump's immigration ban is similar to that vocalized by a number of far-right Euroskeptic groups. Indeed, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Dutch Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders celebrated the ban on Twitter. Still, this is a trend that will need to be watched closely. If Trump himself, as the current face of anti-immigrant policy, is viewed unfavorably among large parts of the European electorate, some of the shine of Euroskeptic anti-immigrant policies could wear off, and far-right parties may try to differentiate themselves from the American president.

A concern hanging over many European minds is the same looming over many in the United States: The manner in which the immigration ban has been framed and unfurled will only feed into a broader jihadist narrative of a war being waged between Muslims and the West. Tangible measures, such as increasing surveillance and preventing entry of certain classes of immigrants, may be relatively easy in comparison to direct from the helm in the name of national security. But countering the ideological foundation that jihadist propaganda relies on to radicalize youth and compel them to commit acts of terrorism is a deeply arduous battle that will necessarily be waged over generations and multiple U.S. administrations.

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