When a district court in Hawaii blocked the Trump administration’s revised travel ban last week, Trump criticized the ruling and vowed to reinstate the executive order in the name of “national security.”
But the travel ban will not secure the U.S. from terrorism, as a leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report and various counterterrorism experts suggest. It has, however, already begun to serve another purpose: The travel ban is enabling the Trump administration to construct a new vision of America—one that’s being used to justify ineffective, racist, and dangerous foreign policy.
A Nation in Danger?
“We have seen the devastation from 9/11 to Boston to San Bernardino,” Trump told the Tennessee crowd last week, evoking some of the nation’s collective traumas. In his first speech to Congress last month, he incited similar anxieties, warning that if the U.S. did not act fast, it would become “a sanctuary for extremists.”
The Trump administration isn’t the first to whip up support for its foreign and domestic policies by invoking America’s fear of terrorism. But the travel ban has given the terrorist threat something new: a nationality and ethnicity. Hailing from (now) six predominantly Muslim countries, danger has a religion and race.
The representations of danger conjured up by the travel ban are being used, in turn, to justify the policy itself—one that stands not only on weak legal footing, but also on feeble and false evidence. According to the leaked DHS document, “citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” Meanwhile, Syrian refugees, blocked for 120 days under the new ban, are already among the most thoroughly vetted individuals entering the country; they also pose no real threat to national security.
Similarly, the administration’s emphasis on immigrant-related crime unfairly portrays foreigners—particularly black and brown undocumented immigrants—as a menace to America’s safety. By calling these individuals “thieves, gang members, killers, and criminals preying on our citizens,” Trump is misrepresenting the threat and fueling unfounded fears, as immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to commit violent crimes. He’s also dehumanizing an entire class of people living within U.S. borders.
Rewriting National Identity
By defining a national security threat by immigration status, race, and creed, the travel ban defines that which is threatened by the same criteria. Like the danger it faces, Trump’s America also has an ethnic national identity—one that is loosely white, European, Christian, and native-born.
We have good reason to believe this race-based conception of America is what the administration is after: Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy advisor Stephen Miller have long espoused anti-immigrant sentiment and favoritism for native-born Americans; Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised the discriminatory Immigration Act of 1924, which used national origin quotas to curb Jewish, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigration before it was upended in 1965.
Basing American identity on ethnicity or country of origin represents a departure from the values the U.S. claims to champion. America is a nation based not on common cultural backgrounds or bloodlines, but on shared values; an ethnic melting pot, it’s a place that welcomes “the homeless” and “tempest-tossed.” Granted, the U.S. has not always lived up to these ideals. But today, Trump’s travel ban is overtly challenging them.
Policies that demean immigrants and construct an ethnic, nativist American identity are not simply immoral; they are also a threat to our national security. Such narratives are damaging relationships with allies and galvanizing Daesh; they are stoking anti-American sentiment abroad and curbing U.S. tourism; they are legitimizing a foolish and expensive border wall that won’t stop illegal immigration or the flow of drugs. Worst of all, these representations are being used to justify the inhumane treatment of families and individuals across the country.
The Trump administration has indicated that it will contest the latest ruling on the travel ban, so the struggle to craft a new vision of America is far from over. Whether or not the they succeed in crafting an order narrow enough to get past the courts, we must bring our counternarratives to the fore; we must call into question the administration’s deceptive discourses that are being used to justify discriminatory and dangerous foreign policies. The security of our nation and national identity depend on it.