As President Donald Trump's travel bans for residents of seven majority-Muslim countries led to massive public outcry and protests last weekend, he and his defenders cried foul. Wait, they said, President Barack Obama took a similar action in 2011 out of concern for terrorism and there was hardly any fuss at all. Isn't this administration being held to a different standard? Indeed, President Trump invoked that example two days after he signed his executive order: "My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months," according to a statement issued by the White House.
That sounds pretty factual, and Trump supporters are certainly convinced that the "mainstream media" is out to get him. The problem is that the comparison isn't apt at all. Very little about either the circumstances or the effect of the actions are the same. Thus, this week's worst example of alternative facts has overstayed its visa from last Friday — President Obama didn't impose a Muslim travel ban or anything approaching one.
Here's what actually happened six years ago. In Kentucky, two Iraqi immigrants were arrested on suspicion of being involved in roadside bombings of American troops in their homeland. Without great fanfare, the Obama administration reacted to the allegations by re-examining the process by which Iraqis were getting visas. New background checks were required (it was actually controversial at the time, as there were concerns that Iraqis who helped translate for U.S. military might be prevented from entering the country despite a Congressional mandate that such individuals have their entry expedited). The result? A backlog in the processing of Iraqi refugees that was resolved in about six months. There was never an actual stoppage; Iraqi refugees continued to come to the U.S. throughout, albeit at a slower pace for a time.
The Trump action prohibits travel to the U.S. for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations, halts refugee admissions for 120 days and halts Syrian refugee admissions indefinitely. It was not in reaction to a specific incident. It went far beyond one country. And it's a ban. The 2011 action didn't, for example, affect refugees; it was a matter of slowing, not stopping, travel from the one country where there was a threat. And finally, the 2011 action wasn't done haphazardly. It was reviewed by multiple agencies including the intelligence community. There was no sudden reversal of airport traffic and threats of deportation of children. It also took place at a time when vetting was less thorough than it is today. (Now refugees, for example, may have to wait years to qualify for entry.)
Another canard: The Trump administration didn't get the seven countries from the Obama administration. Those seven nations were listed in 2015 legislation (which Mr. Obama signed) revising the policy by which citizens of certain nations are allowed to visit the U.S. without first obtaining a visa. The new rule said that citizens of those countries who had visited Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen would no longer be granted a waiver and would have to get a visa before coming here. No one was banned at all.