Transcript

609:

It’s Working Out Very Nicely
Transcript

Originally aired 02.03.2017

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/609

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

George Okech

OK. Let's agree on facts.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

We all had hope of going to USA.

Interpreter

[Somali]

Ira Glass

Nairobi, Kenya. Saturday, the day after President Trump signed his executive order temporarily stopping all refugees from entering the United States. This is a transit center for refugees, run by the International Organization for Migration, the IOM, which helps them relocate.

In a tent, about 40 Somalis sit on plastic chairs-- mostly men. They're banned from the United States for two reasons, if you want to get technical about it. Because they're refugees, and because they're from one of the seven countries where we're banning all travelers-- from Somalia.

A middle aged Kenyan, George Okech, stands in front of them with the unenviable job of explaining the news. Many of these men were supposed to fly in the next two or three days.

George Okech

And as it is now, you know that there is a new president in the office of USA.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

So for this reason, are you are aware that some changes will come in?

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

For your information, it's not only in Kenya, but many other places, too.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

This is beyond our control. We don't have a final say here. Are you aware of that?

Kevin Sieff

Yeah. I mean, people are really sad, just some of them with their heads in their hands.

Ira Glass

Kevin Sieff is the Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post. He was there recording what happened for us.

Kevin Sieff

Some of them had been refugees for 25, 26 years. I would say probably the majority of them had been refugees for more than two decades.

Ira Glass

Oh, my God.

Kevin Sieff

Yeah. And so I mean, these are people, in many cases, who submitted their applications to go to the US 10, 12 years ago. And that's how long it took them to get to this step in the process, this last step.

Ira Glass

This last step, though, is now blocked.

George Okech

What the president has said is final. We can't question him.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

It is final for me.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

Final for IOM.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

Final for you.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

Neither you or us should start fighting about it.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

So the process now will be people will have to go back to the camp.

Interpreter

[Somali]

Ira Glass

The camp is the refugee camp seven hours away, where they lived.

George Okech

So we have just to move you back there.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

As we all wait.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

How would you take that?

Interpreter

[Somali]

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

The problem with moving back is, OK, everything. But the practical part of it is daunting. They sold their homes and possessions, gave up their jobs. And they were no longer on the books as camp residents. People running the camp weren't sure what to do with that. George asked the group, what are some of the problems?

George Okech

What are some of the problems that you are facing if you go back may I ask you? One by one, not everybody. One by one.

Interpreter

Yes, Mr. Ahmed?

Ahmed

[Somali]

Interpreter

He is in 26 years.

George Okech

26?

Interpreter

Yes.

George Okech

At the camp?

Interpreter

At the camp level, yes.

Ira Glass

He's saying he's been at the camp for 26 years.

Ahmed

[Somali]

Interpreter

And when he was called by IOM to go for flights, he took, for shopping, clothes credits from one of the shopkeepers. And that shopkeeper is expecting him to pay back that credit.

Ira Glass

Kevin, just explain what's being said here.

Kevin Sieff

So before these guys left their refugee camps, they bought a lot of clothes to bring with them for the journey. The clothes are cheaper there and they kind of wanted to arrive already having American clothes, already having winter jackets. I think there was this idea that they could come out of whatever American airport they'd arrived at and already be prepared. There was a lot of pride, I think, attached to that.

Ira Glass

But, Kevin explained to me, because they didn't have any money, they bought all the clothes on credit with the idea that they were going to earn the money in America and then send it back.

Kevin Sieff

And so that was one of their biggest concerns was how are they going to pay back this huge sum of money. They'd never considered it. And so even if they only spent, I don't know-- I think most of them spent around $100 on clothes. That's an unimaginable amount of money to make for almost all of these people.

Ira Glass

Because working a job in the camp, how much would you make a day?

Kevin Sieff

Some of the highest paid people in the camp are teachers, and they make $80 a month. So to pay back $100-- they're really worried about having these confrontations with the people who they basically borrowed large sums of money from.

Ira Glass

So George tells the refugees.

George Okech

Your creditors--

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

You'll have to talk to them.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

Because you are not yet in America.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

And it wasn't to your liking.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

And if you promise that you are going to work hard to pay back.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

That is something explainable to somebody.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

It is not easy.

Interpreter

[Somali]

George Okech

But it is something that we have to swallow, though bitter.

Ira Glass

George calls in another guy, a skinny guy in his 20s with a goatee. He used to be a headmaster of a school in the camp. He says that, while he was waiting for his papers to come to the United States, he turned down scholarships in Canada and Germany. The one in Canada included a path to citizenship. And he did that because he wanted to go to America. After the four-month temporary ban, he asks, are we going to be allowed into the United States? George replies.

George Okech

Remember I said that this is a bitter pill and there is nothing we can do about it. We don't want to give you any false promise. We don't know what will be said and put into effect by the end of 120 days. The boss has said wait. And once he has said wait, nobody will change it till he decides otherwise.

Interpreter

[Somali]

Ira Glass

The boss? He means President Trump.

Kevin Sieff

Yeah, that's right.

Ira Glass

This is like the worst town hall meeting ever. It's like each person stands up and says something awful about the situation, and then the guy in the front of the room says, yes, this is a bitter pill.

Kevin Sieff

And there's also just no clarity for them. One of the things that struck me while I was at the transit center is that every time someone prepared to speak to the refugees, there was this false hope. Like, they all gathered around in these plastic chairs and waited for good news. And it happened a lot. They were gathered around in a group and basically told that nothing had changed. But each time before that person, like George, started speaking, there was this expectation. And you could feel it that maybe they're going to say now that the suspension's been lifted.

Ira Glass

Fact is, at the end of 120 day ban on entering the United States, for many, if not most, of these refugees, clearances and their applications will expire. So they're going have to clear those again, which could take years.

Our country does lots of things around the world that have unintended consequences, but this is the intended consequence of the travel ban. These refugees were stopped until the administration could toughen up the vetting process to enter the United States. In the first week of the Trump administration, there was a lot of talk about dealing with illegal immigrants to the US, about building a wall, about how we were going to pay for that.

But immigrants who followed the rules, who filled out the forms, who went through the process-- they were fine. Not this week. With the signing of this executive order, the president made the transition from cracking down on illegal immigrants to cracking down on legal ones. All the people at this camp were legal immigrants. They'd gone through a rigorous vetting process that had taken years, had been approved for resettlement, and now they're barred from the country.

Today on our radio show, we're going to document some of the things that happened when the executive order went into effect, and we're going to talk about the way it was implemented. As I'm guessing you've already heard, customs agents didn't have clear instructions. Government agencies said they weren't properly consulted. There was no advance warning to agencies or to travelers, so people got on planes and then had to be turned back from airports. It was like seeing a major policy change thrown into the world like a fastball with no warning. And it's hard not to feel like, what just happened? Like, what was that all about? We talk about that, too.

About half the country approves of the ban according to a Reuters poll. But if you took a poll at this transit center, I'm pretty confident the numbers would not be that high. Kevin talked to one guy, Ahmed, who's 24. Born in the refugee camp. And until he went to the transit center, he said he'd never been outside the camp.

Kevin Sieff

And that's really common at that camp in Dadaab. Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world. There are 270,000 people there.

Ahmed

It's very sad. Can I ask you a question?

Kevin Sieff

Yeah.

Ahmed

Are you from America?

Kevin Sieff

Yeah, I'm from America. It's called Fort Lauderdale.

Ahmed

So how do you feel, only surrounds that city?

Ira Glass

He's asking you, how would you feel if you never left Fort Lauderdale?

Ahmed

How would you feel? You personally?

Kevin Sieff

Yeah, I think it would be hard. And also, Fort Lauderdale is much bigger than your camp.

Ahmed

Exactly. Yeah. That's how is it.

Kevin Sieff

So let me ask you. When you're sitting in Ifo camp and you're trying to imagine America-- far away; it looks different-- how do you imagine it in your head?

Ahmed

In fact, when I had started this process, I used to just dream at night that I, in America, I'm just driving a bus. You see, just walking--

Kevin Sieff

You're driving a bus in the dream?

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. He's saying that in his dream of living in America, he's a bus driver?

Kevin Sieff

Yeah. That's the thing that he really latched onto.

Why do you think in the dream you were driving a bus? I'm just wondering.

Ahmed

I like driving.

Kevin Sieff

Have you ever driven a car?

Ahmed

No.

Kevin Sieff

You've never driven a car?

Ahmed

I never drive a car here. [INAUDIBLE] America around there.

Ira Glass

It case this isn't clear, these are literal dreams, like while he was asleep. He would be in America, driving a bus, and then Ahmed said he would wake up and, you know, he'd be back at the camp.

So after working their way through the application process-- some of them taking a decade doing it-- Ahmed and the other Somalis find out at the 11th hour, no, they are not going to America. And in fact, they're going to be returning to the refugee camp where they'd given up their jobs and their homes. And in fact, they were now in debt for their new American winter coats and pants.

Kevin Sieff

I mean, I can tell you that after they heard this speech from George, within 15 minutes, everyone was in their rooms with their blankets pulled over their faces. And I mean, it was just really, really sad. There were a lot of people who were going to the clinic, a lot of people who were refusing to eat, a lot of people who were refusing to take their medication. There were concerns at the center that people might try to kill themselves. They had extra security there because they weren't sure what people were going to do, that people might kill themselves.

Ira Glass

Then, six days later, as you've probably heard, a judge in Washington issued a restraining order blocking the Trump administration's travel ban. After that, the State Department issued instructions that all the refugees who were stopped now could come to the United States and they should rebook their flights to arrive here before February 17th. That applies to these Somali refugees, who, by the end of the week, had been sent back to the refugee camp but now will be returned to the transit center to fly to the United States very soon-- unless something changes.

Ahmed told Kevin that, just a few days before the executive order was signed, in the cultural orientation class to prepare them for what it's going to be like to live in America, the instructors described the country this way.

Ahmed

They said Americans, they don't discriminate people. They usually will come-- all the people, all the nations, they don't look that you came from Somalia, that you came from Kenya, from Syria, from Iran, from Russia, they don't look, from China, they don't look. All people are seen in America.

Kevin Sieff

And the orientation, that was like three days ago.

Ahmed

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Kevin asked him, how do you make sense of this executive order which does, in fact, single out people from just a few countries, including his. Ahmed said he didn't know how to make sense of it. He's just a student, he said. He's not a politician.

Act One. Basket of Deportables.

Ira Glass

Act One, Basket of Deportables.

So the same day as those Somalis were getting that news, here in the United States at airports around the country, there were protesters, hundreds of volunteer lawyers. A lot of that was on TV. Maybe you saw it. One of our producers, Zoe Chace, was at JFK Airport, terminal 4 on Saturday as customs agents stalled out, waiting for instructions from above. Around the country, there was confusion over who to let in and who to keep out. It seemed like they were erring on the side just holding everybody till they heard from Washington.

Zoe hung out with the lawyers for a while, like Becca Heller from the International Refugee Assistance Project. Her team had been at the airport since the night before, trying to get information from Customs and Border Protection, CBP.

Becca Heller

When we talked to CBP last night and asked who we could speak to, they told us to call the president.

Zoe Chace

Donald Trump.

Becca Heller

Yes. They specified that the president was Donald Trump in case we weren't aware of that. So a lot of our clients who were being held yesterday, Customs and Border Patrol just kept telling them, we're waiting for a call from DC to tell us what to do.

Zoe Chace

Really?

Becca Heller

And I don't know who was supposed to be on the other end of the phone. Is Mike Pence calling them up and telling them what to do? Nobody knows.

Ira Glass

All day the lawyers couldn't see their clients. Zoe and the other reporters couldn't see them or talk to them. They were hidden away somewhere back in the airport. And there's all this mystery about what was happening with these people who had arrived from the seven banned countries.

In the days that followed, over the course of this week, Zoe tried to answer that question about what was going on back there.

Zoe Chace

While Becca and I and the masses of other reporters and lawyers were stuck in the arrivals terminal outside the Dunkin' Donuts, here's what her client Haider was doing right at this moment. He was sitting quietly among dozens of people with no phone in a little room just a few minutes walk from where we were. He'd started off in another terminal, trying for hours to ask the customs officer, what's going on?

Haider

What's the problem? Relax. Relax. Sit down. Relax.

Interpreter

You know, my English isn't that great, so I would ask like, what's the problem? They'd be like, sit down. Relax.

Zoe Chace

I reached Haider by phone a few days after the JFK episode. We spoke through an interpreter. He says when he got off the plane, he never even made it to customs. There were lots of people waiting around, which confused him. And a woman led him into a little room.

Haider

[Arabic]

Interpreter

They still had my passport, and so I was there like four hours just sitting and waiting.

Zoe Chace

Haider had been trying for three years to come to America. He fled Iraq a year and a half ago, found his way to Sweden. His wife had worked for an American contractor in Baghdad and their lives were threatened because of it. She and their son have been in Houston for those three years, trying to get him a visa. He got that visa to come to the United States on January 27, 2017. That was executive order day. His flight left Stockholm at 12:00 PM New York time on Friday. While he was in the air, the order went into effect. Haider didn't know that. He didn't know the order existed, that things have changed. His mind was racing.

Haider

[Arabic]

Interpreter

I'm telling them like, I can't go back to Iraq. I can't go back there, and I can go back to Stockholm because I gave up my right to be there once I came here. And I did everything, and it took three years. And my family's already living here. I have my wife and my son and my wife's family, and everybody's in Houston. And I did this, and it took me three years. Then you told me to come. I'm coming, and now you're telling me I can't come.

Zoe Chace

He couldn't call his wife, Dunya, who was waiting in Houston, but she had a good idea why he might be late. She had Fox News on Friday afternoon.

Dunya

I was at work, and I just put the headphones in my ear, and I was listening. And I just broke down when I heard the news. I just left. I couldn't stay in my place.

Zoe Chace

You were crying.

Dunya

Yeah. It was a really hard time for me.

Zoe Chace

And what were you scared of?

Dunya

I'm scared because if they let him go, all the three years is going to be returned again, you know?

Zoe Chace

You'll have to just do the whole three years over, the whole vetting process.

Dunya

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

Back at the airport, Haider was stood up against a wall and searched. They put him in handcuffs. They took him to a car.

Haider

[Arabic]

Interpreter

Like, I don't know. Like, I can't-- I can't describe it. It was just-- you're just there. This is the first time in my life somebody has ever put handcuffs on me-- and without reason, too. The first time in my life.

Zoe Chace

In the car was an Iranian and another Iraqi also in handcuffs. They drove to terminal 4, the terminal where the lawyers and I were. He got taken into another room. CBP took the handcuffs off and told them why they were there.

Haider

[Arabic]

Interpreter

One of the officers was telling us that this is what Trump said. If you're from this country, if you're from Iraq, and even if you have a visa and everything, you're still going to be sent back to your country. Then I was saying, I was in Sweden before this. I had a visa there and everything. You can't send me back to Iraq because the second I get set back there, I'm going to die.

Zoe Chace

And what did they say to you when you said that?

Haider

[Arabic]

Interpreter

He said, I can't do anything for you.

Haider

[Arabic]

Interpreter

I was just at that point that I just went and I sat. And I was just like, I don't know if we were all allowed a phone call or whatever, but once they kept telling you and telling you you're going to go back, I was almost defeated. So I was like, you have to let me call my wife and let her know what's happening because she doesn't know. So I have to let her know. And then they just gave me the phone to call.

Zoe Chace

Dunya, what happened in the phone call?

Dunya

He called me at 1 o'clock. He said, they will send me back, so don't be sad. And he said, I can't go back to Sweden, so they will send me to Baghdad. And I couldn't talk. And my sister called Julie. She's my lawyer. And she said, just tell him, don't sign anything.

Julie

Yes, I am here. We have a lot of people here waiting for him.

Zoe Chace

Julie, the lawyer in JFK, keeps getting calls from Dunya's sister over the next few hours. She keeps her earbuds permanently in her ears and periodically shouts things out, like I am at the airport ready to assist.

Zoe Chace

Any word on your client?

Julie

Unfortunately no. Last I was told is we are waiting for the Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security's signature.

Zoe Chace

I don't think we have a Secretary of State.

Julie

Tell me about it.

Zoe Chace

The customs official comes out at one point into the crowd of lawyers. She says, come on back, but only two congressmen, Nadler of the 10th District of New York and Velazquez of the 7th, are allowed to follow her.

Julie

It says "no lawyers." See if you can read what they're trying to get him to sign.

Zoe Chace

Haider told me he stayed in that room at the terminal for another 10 hours. At some point, they brought him chicken and biscuits. One by one, he watched people leave. Haider was not interrogated, like was reported at other airports with other people who were held up. His wife waited, cried, texted the lawyers.

We asked the White House to help us understand what was happening. We got no response. But I read The Washington Post. Here's what the administration told reporters on a conference call. The news media needs to calm down their, quote, "false, misleading, inaccurate, hyperventilating coverage" of the, quote, "fractional, marginal, minuscule percentage of international travelers who have simply been," as the reporter puts it, "set aside for further questioning for a couple hours on their way into the greatest country in the world." And OK, sure, a couple hours. Even 10 hours. Even 24 hours is not a big deal if you know what happens at the end-- that you get to come take refuge in America like you were promised. It is a big deal if you spend 10 hours worrying you're going to be flown off to a place where you're going to be killed, and your wife spends those hours thinking she'll never see you again.

6:30 PM, 22 hours later, Haider walks out into the arrivals area with everybody waiting. According to his lawyer Julie, five minutes after being told no, no, no, he cannot leave, apparently CBP suddenly changed its mind. They got a phone call and then they said, he can go. His lawyers think it's because they filed a habeas corpus suit, but really we don't know. We might never know. He came out with no documentation of what happened, which is extremely unusual.

And so Haider is here in America with Dunya. The customs officials were nice about it when they let him go.

Haider

[Arabic]

Interpreter

Then after, they came to me and they said, OK, we finished everything. And you can go to Dunya now.

Haider

[Arabic]

Interpreter

I mean, to get out there and to see all of these people that stayed up this late, and they left their homes and their jobs and everything, and they're here for the sole purpose of standing with us. It's so beautiful.

Zoe Chace

It's reported later that there was basically no prep on the government's part for how to deal with this. Apparently, this executive order was signed after very little consultation with Homeland Security or the State Department or the Department of Justice-- the guys in charge of this sort of thing.

As this week went on, the more that came out, the more confused it sounded. Like the green card holders. At first, it seemed like the green card holders were banned. Homeland Security, late Friday night, said, no, not green card holders. Then the White House overruled Homeland Security, like, green card holders, still out, basically. On Sunday, the White House said, OK, fine, Homeland Security, let's just do some extra screening of the green card holders. On Tuesday, the new Secretary of Homeland Security said the rollout went smoothly. On Thursday, the White House said, never mind. No additional screening for green card holders. Also this week, Congress requested an internal investigation into the Department of Homeland Security, into the way this policy got rolled out.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace. Haider's case, by the way-- a few hours after Haider's release was the case that led a New York judge to issue the first order halting deportations under the president's ban. Others obviously followed in the days after.

[MUSIC - NARCY, "HEY!"]

Act Two. Heavy Vetting.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Heavy Vetting.

So the whole premise of the executive order is that we're going to stop all refugees and we're going to stop travelers from seven countries for a few months because we need to overhaul the way that we screen people before they come into the United States. Well, I talked to somebody who does that screening. He's on the staff of the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, USCIS. He's an interviewer. Flies to Africa and to the Mideast. He's interviewed Africans from all seven countries that we have temporarily banned. Sits with people for hours, drilling them on the details of their stories, looking for inconsistencies and lies. He asked that we not use his name or put his voice here on the radio, so I'm going to call him Bob. We have an actor, Scott Shepherd, saying what he said here on the air.

Bob said that when he and his colleagues heard about the executive order, the reaction was mostly shock and sadness. A few dozen of them went out for drinks together, and some people cried then.

Ira Glass

Can I ask, did you cry?

Bob

On my own? Yes. In front of my friends? No.

Ira Glass

And so the news came down that this executive order came down, and so what happens to your work? What are you doing now?

Bob

When it came down, we basically came to a screeching halt. Most of us were getting on airplanes, and so we just literally had no work to do. So now we're all-- most likely, it looks like we're going to redeploy to the southern border, where we can do credible fear work. I'm not sure if you're--

Ira Glass

Do you mean you'll be doing with the border with Mexico, where you'll be doing credible fear work? That's people who want asylum and you have to interview them to figure out if they have a credible fear of getting killed?

Bob

Right, right.

Ira Glass

Now, the whole premise for this executive order is that our ways of screening people to come into this country from these particular countries is not strong enough, and we're not doing a good enough job. And the president wants to put in something that he's calling extreme vetting. What do you think of that idea?

Bob

I find it personally offensive because it implies that those of us who vet refugees weren't doing extreme vetting before, that the work that I do as a refugee officer wasn't adequate to begin with. And I take the security of our country as my first priority. So I would never let someone in who I was suspicious of.

Ira Glass

Bob and I talked for a while about the vetting procedures that are in place now. And they are considerable. People are fingerprinted. We take biometric data. In many countries, there are iris scans. Security checks are run by the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the National Counterterrorism Center, and sometimes others. They look at criminal databases and terrorism watch lists. They check family members' affiliations. They'll call contacts on people's smartphones. They have document verification labs. They compare the biometric information. And of course, they check people's social media accounts.

The interviews Bob does are face to face. They take hours. A lawyer that I talked to who advocates for refugees seeking asylum, Laura Finkbeiner from the International Refugee Assistance Project, emphasized how these interviews are customized for each person.

Laura Finkbeiner

So they have a bunch of screening questions that they've particularly crafted, and they do this based on country. So they know if you're from a certain area at a certain time, there were certain groups active there. So they're checking to see-- they're asking you questions that are based specifically on your story, and they're making sure that what you're saying is credible, so it's consistent with what they know about the area at that given time.

Bob

And so we are looking for discrepancies in that information.

Ira Glass

I asked Bob about this.

Bob

Like, if those stories don't match, explain to me why not.

Ira Glass

And so basically, are you just running them through a million little details, trying to trip them up?

Bob

For the most part, yeah.

Ira Glass

And this has become an incredibly politicized question, but I hope you can answer it honestly. Are there times in your job where you feel like, oh, I really can't tell about this person and I wish I had more tools? I wish there was more I could do to figure this out better?

Bob

There are times that, because it's impossible to know about some people for whatever reason. But that's why we have a process. We're not letting people in that we have question marks about.

Ira Glass

Oh. You're saying, if you can't figure it out, then they just don't get in.

Bob

Right. Right.

Ira Glass

And all this brings us to something that is not just Bob's opinion. Many people believe that the current vetting system is effective. They'll tell you our current system's working. And as for the rare cases where somebody gets through, they'll say no system's perfect. No system can be perfect. We need studying learned from those cases.

One of the people who said the system is effective to me most fiercely this week was Kirk Johnson. He's been on our program before. He worked for USAID in Iraq. And then when he came back to this country, he started the List Project to help interpreters and other Iraqis and Afghans who worked with the US overseas, whose lives were threatened because of it, move to this country. In that job, he's become very familiar with how hard it can be to get somebody into the US, even if they risk their lives helping American troops. He said it's tough.

Kirk Johnson

I'm really in this twilight zone because I'm seeing the President of the United States and his advisers try to draft policy to address a problem that doesn't exist.

Ira Glass

And what problem is that?

Kirk Johnson

Well, he campaigned by saying that we're not vetting these people. And the only way you can say that is if you don't know anything about how people are vetted. And you know, Trump's a busy guy. I don't expect him to sit down and learn the two-year vetting process in place by the US Refugee Admissions Program, but I sure as hell expect Steve Bannon or Steve Miller or any of the Steves who drafted this thing to just spend a few minutes and find out what is already in place. And I know for a fact that they did not go to the State Department's Refugee Processing people, the people that have been doing this for decades-- they never even got a basic briefing as to what currently exists.

Ira Glass

How do you know that they didn't consult with the State Department?

Kirk Johnson

I was on the phone with the State Department minutes before he signed it, asking whether or not these people that I was pushing were going to be able to board a plane that night.

Ira Glass

And this is in which office of the State Department?

Kirk Johnson

In the Population, Refugees, and Migration bureau.

Ira Glass

And that's who manages these programs to figure out who can come into the country?

Kirk Johnson

Right.

Ira Glass

Wait. And so you were on the phone with this person while the signing was happening?

Kirk Johnson

It was about three or four minutes beforehand, I reached out to this official at the State Department to say what's going to happen when she shows up to the airport, and he didn't know. And I said, how can you not know? Haven't they been coming and working this all out with you? And there was silence, and I pushed him. And he said, well, what do you want me to say? I'm sitting here refreshing the White House website just like you are.

Ira Glass

Looking for the text of the executive order.

Kirk Johnson

Right.

Ira Glass

We reached out to the person that Kirk talked to at the Population, Refugees, and Migration bureau to confirm this. He hung up on us.

Of course, not everybody agrees with Kirk Johnson. We reached out to two experts who have questions about how well our current system works and we asked them what's missing. How can we vet better? Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which generally argues for less immigration, said we could ask more questions during the vetting process to figure out the ideology of applicants. Ask if they agree with American values. But that was the only specific thing that he could point to.

Tim Kane, who heads up immigration studies at the Hoover Institution-- not the former vice presidential candidate-- had no specific things he thought that we should add to the vetting process. He thinks it's thorough. Instead, he questioned whether we can effectively screen people at all from places like Syria and Somalia.

Tim Kane

I don't know if it's possible to vet in a failed state. What do you do to vet people in a failed state where there's no government to serve as a source of documentation? And I think the right answer might be, it's impossible.

Ira Glass

Mark Krikorian at the Center for Immigration Studies went a little further on the same point.

Mark Krikorian

I mean, we run people's names through the databases that we have, but the state simply doesn't exist in those places. What are we going to do, run somebody's fingerprints through the Mogadishu DMV?

Ira Glass

Bob, the interviewer that I talked to at USCIS, says that that's a naive picture of our security databases and the role they play in screening and the kind of information in them. And he said, in fact, Syrians, though they come from a failed state, are among the best-documented refugees. They almost always have documentation with them, he said. Like these things called family books, which are government-issued documentation of entire families.

None of the people we talked to this week could tell us exactly what was meant by the phrase extreme vetting. National security experts say that it's not a term that's been used in their world. Both Kane at the Hoover Institution and Krikorian at the Center for Immigration Studies said the phrase extreme vetting seems like something that Donald Trump just made up. It's a marketing term, Kane said. And the moment Donald Trump invented it seems to have been last summer, right after the attack in Nice, France. This is then-candidate Donald Trump on Fox News about four hours after the attack. Greta Van Susteren asked him what he'd be doing in this moment if he were president.

Donald Trump

Well, I'd be making it very, very hard for people to come into our country, for one thing, from terrorist areas. I would be so extreme in terms of documentation. And Obama's allowing a lot of people that come in. We have no idea who they are. They are from Syria, maybe, but they have no paperwork. Many times they don't have documentation proper. I would do extreme vetting. I would call it extreme vetting, too.

Ira Glass

Do you think the president just doesn't know what he's talking about when he says we need stronger vetting?

Bob

I know he doesn't know what he's talking about when he says that.

Ira Glass

Again, this is Bob, who works interviewing refugee applicants. He says he, and he thinks most of his coworkers, are open to anything that could make the vetting process better. What he has a problem with is stopping the flow of refugees for four months while the administration figures it out.

Bob

Nobody has a problem with improving the security checks-- the process that we have to protect the United States. Nobody is going to be complaining with that. What I do have a problem with is reducing the cap of refugees that we take into the United States in the middle of maybe the greatest humanitarian crisis of my lifetime, the crisis in Syria. It's millions of people that are in need, living in camps around the world, and I feel like this is not the time to shut them out without a valid reason. Me, as an American, I feel like this is something we value, that we help the needy, that we stand up to protect people who need protection, and that's something that we're not doing.

Ira Glass

Coming up, we take apart one key sentence in the executive order and we ask, is this really true? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, It's Working Out Very Nicely. We got that title from something the president said about the rollout of his executive order, the temporary ban on travel and resettlement.

Donald Trump

It's working out very nicely. You see it at the airports. You see it all over. It's working out very nicely. And we're going to have a very, very--

Ira Glass

A senior administration official told reporters on Sunday, quote, "it really is a massive success story in terms of implementation on every single level." White House aide Stephen Miller said later in the week, quote, "it is hard to envision a smoother rollout."

Act Three. Statement of Purpose.

Ira Glass

So in the first half of our radio program today, we documented what happened during some of that smooth rollout. In this half, we're going to be talking more about what we should make of its substance. And that brings us to Act Three. Act Three, Statement of Purpose.

So the very first section of President Trump's executive order is called Purpose. It's the premise on which the order is based. It's the why of the whole thing. The Purpose section starts by saying, quote, "the visa issuance process plays a crucial role in detecting individuals with terrorist ties and stopping them from entering the United States." OK. No debate there. That is true.

It's the next sentence that caught the eye of one of our producers, Nancy Updike. That sentence reads, quote, "perhaps in no instance was that more apparent than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 Americans." That sounds all right-- just like a quick summary of 9/11. But Nancy had a couple questions. Here she is.

Nancy Updike

The whole reason there was a commission after 9/11 that put out a 585-page report about 9/11 was to be precise and thorough about what on Earth went wrong. And if we're going to base a sea change in United States immigration policy on a one-line summary of 9/11, I want to look at whether we're getting it right.

I called the senior counsel for the 9/11 Commission report, Susan Ginsburg. She wasn't just a staff member for the commission. She was team leader of the group that was focused on the visa process and border controls and how the terrorists were permitted into the country, because there's no disputing that the 9/11 hijackers came into the United States with approved visas.

Susan and her group, in fact, wrote a whole separate 241-page report just about immigration, border control, and terrorist travel. She also worked, before 9/11, for the law enforcement division of the Treasury Department, which at the time controlled customs, ATF, and the Secret Service. She also worked on counterterrorism initiatives with Richard Clarke, who led counterterrorism efforts under Presidents Bush and Clinton. Susan Ginsburg is not a softy. She asked me not to record her, but she said I could quote her if I cleared the quotes with her first. Here's what she said.

I asked her if, in her view, it's true, as it says in the executive order that, quote, "State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visas," end quote. Susan said, there is truth in that, but it's not the whole truth. She said it's, quote, "distorted and arbitrary to focus solely on the visa process if you want to understand how the 9/11 hijackers were able to get into America," end quote. Why? Because, she said, the problem was so much bigger than that.

Before 9/11, the entire government from the president on down did not see the country's borders or its visa system as the front line of counterterrorism as we do now. The problem wasn't so much a matter of this or that policy. It was a whole mindset, a pre-9/11 mindset that was operating at all levels of government. Before 9/11, our consular offices in other countries weren't funded or staffed to do serious scrutiny of visa applicants.

Applicants were supposed to be interviewed face to face, but a lot of times they just weren't because the word from above was that interviews were too time consuming. They slowed everything down. That might be an example of one of the State Department policies the Trump administration had in mind when it wrote in the executive order that State Department policy prevented us from properly scrutinizing visas.

There was a terrorist watch list before 9/11 called TIPOFF, and consular officials would check names against it. But the list was frighteningly incomplete. The FBI and CIA weren't even sharing a lot of information with each other before 9/11, let alone making it available to junior foreign service officers working for the State Department overseas.

Customs and border agents also lacked funding and support to do real screening. Susan said, quote, "counterterrorism at the time was viewed as the purview of specialists. There was no government-wide strategic focus on counterterrorism," end quote.

What that meant in practice with visa applications before 9/11 was that we were on the lookout for people who seemed like they might want to use a student or visitor visa to come to the US and then just stay in the country even after the visa expired because they wanted to live here. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian. Saudis at the time weren't scrutinized as potential security threats. They were seen as tourists who would most likely spend a lot of money and then go home.

To state the obvious, before 9/11 happened, we as a nation couldn't imagine 9/11. Now, 15 years later, we think about it all the time. We've spent billions of dollars to study and fix what went wrong. As Susan says, quote, "any policy or practice that was in place at the time 9/11 happened has long been superseded. Long been superseded," end quote. In other words, we wrote a whole book about this in order to change it, and the government did make enormous changes.

I'm not saying, and Susan is definitely not saying, that now we're invulnerable. Quite the opposite. The United States is vulnerable in ways that have evolved radically since 9/11 and are continuing to evolve. But that evolution is not reflected in the executive order. The order says, correctly, that, quote, "while the visa issuance process was reviewed and amended after the September 11 attacks to better detect would-be terrorists from receiving visas, these measures did not stop attacks by foreign nationals who were admitted to the United States," end quote. That is absolutely true. But it's also true that, in the last several years, the majority of terrorist attacks in the US-- not all, but the majority-- have been committed by US citizens, not green card holders, not visa holders, not refugees. Citizens.

I talked to a former CIA case officer who said what worries him about the executive order is that it's letting the exceptions set the rule. He said ISIS propaganda doesn't need a visa. It doesn't need a plane. It's here. And to crack down right now on refugees and other visa holders, people who've been through our screening process-- to make that the focus, as if not much has really changed with our visa process since 9/11, doesn't address the biggest part of the problem right now. Which of course, doesn't mean that someone can never again get in from the outside and do terrible damage. That is always, always a risk. Susan said the government is constantly modifying security procedures as new tactics and new weaknesses emerge, and it cannot ever let up doing that.

One last thing to note about 9/11. The authors of the 9/11 report, after documenting every failure that led to 2,996 deaths, every mistake, every naive notion, after immersing themselves in this tragedy, they wrote not just that it's vital to secure the country's borders and to check and triple check everyone who wants to come here. They also wrote this. Quote, "our borders and immigration system, including law enforcement, ought to send the message of welcome, tolerance, and justice to members of immigrant communities in the United States and in the countries of origin," end quote.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our show.

This idea, by the way, that security experts told Nancy that trying to stop terrorists at our borders might not be the best way to stop future acts of terror, that is also the very first point made by foreign service officers and diplomats in that dissent memo you may have heard about. The State Department has a process for its experts to call attention to policy mistakes they think the United States is making. This one was signed by about 1,000 State Department officials, apparently the most anybody can remember of signing one of these things.

This is from their memo. They said one problem with the travel ban is that it, quote, "will not achieve its stated aim to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States. Despite the executive order's focus on them, a vanishingly small number of terror attacks on US soil have been committed by foreign nationals who recently entered the United States on an immigrant or non-immigrant visa. Rather, the overwhelming majority of attacks have been committed by native-born or naturalized US citizens-- individuals who have been living in the United States for decades, if not since birth.

Given the near absence of terror attacks committed in recent years by Syrian, Iraqi, Irani, Libyan, Somali, Sudanese, and Yemeni citizens who were in the US after entering on a visa, this ban will have little practical effect in improving public safety."

[MUSIC, THE SUNTONES, "GIVE ME YOUR TIRED YOUR POOR"]

Act Four. How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sharia?

Ira Glass

Act Four, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sharia?

So one thing about this executive order is that it doesn't just target people who are members of terrorist groups. It targets anybody sympathetic to their ideas. It says, quote, "the United States cannot and should not admit those who do not support the Constitution or those who would place violent ideologies over American law," which presumably is supposed to address Muslims who want to impose Sharia law. The executive order specifically mentions people who believe in honor killings, who believe in other forms of violence against women, and who believe in the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own.

But the order does not say the word Muslim, and that's an important point. The administration spokespeople said a number of times this week that this executive order is not a Muslim ban. Here's White House press secretary Sean Spicer, for instance.

Sean Spicer

This is not a Muslim ban. It's not a travel ban. It's a vetting system to keep America safe. That's it, plain and simple. And all of the facts--

Ira Glass

This is the explanation over and over, in various ways and various spokespeople. This is about safety, this executive order. Sean Spicer did a pretty good job summarizing the point at a different press briefing this week.

Sean Spicer

The president's going to be very proactive with protecting this country. We're not going to wait until we get attacked and figure out how we can make sure it doesn't happen again. He's going to do everything in his power to stop every threat that we face in this country and every potential threat. And that's the key point in this. How do we get ahead of threats? How do we keep America ahead of the curve when it comes to people who want to do us harm? And that's what the president--

Ira Glass

When I tried to make sense of this radical change in our immigration and anti-terrorism policy over the last weekend, I came across this article on a website that's devoted to national security law, called Lawfare, by the site's editor-in-chief, Benjamin Wittes, who I learned is usually pretty hawkish on national security issues. And he noted a bunch of things that bothered him about the executive order. He said that the drafting-- like the actual language, the writing of it-- was inept and made it prone to legal challenges. He called that, quote, "a birthday gift to the ACLU or anybody who wanted to challenge it."

But the most interesting thing he said-- he let out this argument where he said that if the real purpose of this order is to stop terrorists, like it claims, it's not going to achieve its goals. He says he didn't believe it was the executive order's real goal. He said if stopping terrorists was its goal, then the order is, quote, "wildly overinclusive and wildly underinclusive at the same time." On the underinclusive side, Wittes notes that the executive order doesn't stop people from lots of countries that might be just as likely as these seven countries to have terrorists. And on the overinclusive side, he says the order bans all kinds of people that it shouldn't, people we have no reason to suspect of being connected to terrorism. I had him read.

Benjamin Wittes

It for the purpose of the order is the one it describes, for example, I can think of no good reason to burden the lives of students individually suspected of nothing who are here lawfully and just happened to be temporarily overseas, or to detain tourists and refugees who were mid-flight when the order came down. I have trouble imagining any reason to raise questions about whether green card holders who have lived here for years can leave the country and then return.

Ira Glass

Because of that, he writes, "I don't believe that the stated purpose is the real purpose of this executive order. In the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don't marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process." He's referring here, I guess, to the fact that the Department of Defense, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies were not consulted in the normal ways before this thing was released.

He writes, "you don't target the wrong people in nutty ways when you're rationally pursuing real security objectives. When do you do these things?" he writes. "You do these things when you're elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. This will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do." He writes that he doesn't make this charge lightly. He's never said anything like this about any other post-9/11 measures. But that, "whatever the White House is saying this is going to do," he writes, "this will not help with terrorism, but it will keep out Muslims." and he's concluded that's its purpose.

Benjamin Wittes

Well, I think the president's told us that. I mean, I think all through the campaign he told us that he was going to stop Muslims from coming to the country. And all through the campaign, he occasionally said-- this is not a direct quote, but at one point he said, we used to call it a Muslim ban. Now we call it extreme vetting. And Rudy Giuliani said on national television that the president asked him, how do we keep out Muslims in a way that looks legal? And this order is a reflection of that. And this strikes me as different from other steps that have been taken in the post-9/11 era.

Ira Glass

Did you see a senior administration official was on a conference call with reporters this week-- it was in The Washington Post-- and talked about the purpose of this executive order and very quickly got to talking about saying how the immigration system, if it wasn't changed, could lead to, quote, "the kind of large and permanent domestic terror threat that becomes multi-dimensional and multi-generational and becomes a sort of permanent feature in this case. It will become a permanent feature of American life." And what he was describing, really-- I mean, he says the phrase domestic terrorist threat, but what he's really just describing was, like, a lot of people coming into this country. He doesn't say the word Muslim, but that was the clear implication. He says, quote, "we don't want a situation where, 20, 30 years from now, it's just a given thing that, on a fairly regular basis, there's domestic terrorist strikes, that stores are shut up or airports have explosive devices planted, or people are mowed down in the street by cars and automobiles and things of that nature," the senior official said. "These are realities that we're living in today."

Benjamin Wittes

Well, I mean, look, he's talking about the terrorist consequences of admitting Muslims. Now, I first of all don't believe that that is an accurate account of Muslim immigration to the United States. I furthermore don't believe that large numbers of people in the intelligence apparatus of the United States believe that. Good counterterrorism is about scalpels. It's about distinguishing between people who pose threats and people who don't pose threats. Bad counterterrorism is about broad brushes and machetes. And we've had two administrations that have been, in different ways, careful about these distinctions.

Ira Glass

You're talking about the Obama administration and the Bush administration before it?

Benjamin Wittes

Correct. And neither of them ever said anything that would suggest that the broad consequences of properly-vetted Muslim immigration to the United States will be to turn US cities into ungodly war zones of terrorism. And it's an irresponsible thing to say, and there is absolutely no empirical support for it.

Ira Glass

Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare.

Act Five. It’s Not Easy Being Green.

Ira Glass

Act Five, It's Not Easy Being Green.

You might remember Abdi Nor from a show that we did a couple of years ago. He was a Somali refugee. He'd been living in Kenya, like the guys you heard at the beginning of our program today. Only Abdi got lucky. There's a thing the US has done for years, the Diversity Visa Lottery. It makes 50,000 permanent resident visas available each year around the world. And it's a real lottery. And he won and came to the United States. He's living in Portland, Maine. Reporter Leo Hornak reached out to Abdi this week to see, in light of the executive order, what Abdi is thinking.

Abdi Nor

You know, I got the green card and everything has been OK until recently, when the green card issue just came up all over the media when Trump said that he-- I think they don't have an idea what the green card holders actually are. But they just made me feel not the way I felt myself when they decided that people like us would be turned from the airport.

Leo Hornak

But if a member of the Trump administration was right here, or an official, they would say, OK, we cleared that up. You can relax. Green card holders are fine.

Abdi Nor

I don't believe that. That's what I would say. So I've traveled to Canada before with my green card, and I've been shaking when I handed it to the lady who was at the border. And she handed it back to me, and that was totally fine. It was about two years ago. And now, I don't even want to take a risk with that. I don't want to do that because I don't want to get into trouble.

Leo Hornak

OK. So this travel ban is temporary and we've been told the green cards are exempt from many bans, so you should be fine. Do you have any plans to make a trip outside the country just temporarily at any point?

Abdi Nor

Leo, this is not about the 120 days. This is not about the executive order itself. This is about who issues the executive order. I think it's about Trump. And I'm more concerned of the administration today and the way things are going. So I'm not planning to leave even after 120 days. So under Trump's administration, hell no. I'm not going nowhere.

Leo Hornak

During the Trump administration, your plan is not to leave the United States at all?

Abdi Nor

That's correct, because what if, even as a citizen, I go out and something happens and then again, he says, no, Muslims cannot come back? So you know, something like that. So in Trump's administration, no, I'm not going nowhere. So from what he says, and how he executes things, and how he talks, and if you look back when he says extreme vetting-- and he really emphasizes that extreme vetting.

And remember, I'm a Somali. I come from Somalia, one of the countries that he really doesn't like. And he came to Portland, the city where I live, [? twice, ?] and talked about the Somalis as bad people who were just coming to this country, and they have to be stopped. That rhetoric and the actions that he's now doing-- I think that, at one point, he's going to do something that will directly affect me. I don't know what it's going to be, but I'm really worried.

Ira Glass

Abdi Nor. He's writing a book about his life as a refugee. Leo Hornak is a BBC reporter for PRI's The World.

[MUSIC - BRETT HARRIS, "UP IN THE AIR"]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Zoe Chace and myself. Our production staff, Susan Burton, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Karen Duffin, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, and Diane Wu. Research help today from Christopher Swetala, Michelle Harris, and Ben Phelan. Music help today from Damien Graef.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, somebody stole his kayak for the weekend and then brought it back, and Torey thinks it was a Somali pirates. But he doesn't know how to catch them.

Mark Krikorian

What are we going to do, run somebody's fingerprints through the Mogadishu DMV?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.