As a cartoon recently noted, the most disturbing news about Donald Trump is that President Trump and candidate Trump are proving to be largely co-terminous. Mr Trump is single-mindedly trying to ensure that he fulfils the electoral promises he made to his white working-class voting base, however illogical or illiberal they may be. It helps if there is an uproar against the policies as this hides the symbolic nature of many of them. The temporary 90-day ban on travellers and 120-day ban on refugees from seven countries, all of them Muslim majority, fits into this pattern of executive behaviour.
With the visa bans, the Trump administration, having run into legal barriers regarding such policies as allowing the use of torture, is becoming more nuanced in how it crafts executive orders. Strictly speaking, the travel visa ban is only being imposed on countries that have refused to cooperate with the US homeland security’s vetting procedures on visa applicants. Five of the countries are in civil war and incapable of cooperating. Two of them, Iran and Sudan, have refused to provide information on their own citizens as a matter of principle. There is no doubt that Mr Trump deliberately sought out a set of legal parameters that would affect only Muslim countries, but that is not evident going by the language of the executive order.
The more trenchant criticism of the visa ban is that it does not really address any terrorism concerns. Most of the countries in civil war are on the highly restricted visa lists of most countries, including India. But the primary external threats faced by the US originate from places like Pakistan and enter the country via the internet. However, it is not clear that security is at all the reason that Trump issued his order. Not unlike his vague order on a border wall with Mexico, his primary purpose seems to be to generate criticism from those who did not vote for him so that he looks good to those who did. Neither the wall nor visa ban addresses the fundamental contradiction between open borders and tight security that every government faces.
Mr Trump’s actions should help trigger a debate on immigration in general. The US, like most democracies, has allowed a widening gap between its immigration laws, which are generally strict, and actual practice on the ground, which are realistically more lax. This provides legitimacy to anti-immigrant sentiments, which can argue they represent the rule of law. The Trump administration should over time move away from the symbolic towards the meaningful on this issue. Going by his first few weeks in office that may be some time coming --- if ever.