“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem,” H.L. Mencken wrote. “Neat, plausible, and wrong.” Such is the case with President Trump’s plans to temporarily halt the flow of refugees to the United States and bar travelers from certain Muslim countries. What could be neater and more plausible than cracking down on people from terrorism hot spots to ensure that no terrorists are admitted to the country?
Yet as Trump and the country may painfully relearn, effective screening to protect homeland security requires good intelligence and close cooperation with allies to identify genuine threats. The crude alternatives the president advocates will weaken that cooperation, damage U.S. diplomacy and leave the United States more exposed to terrorism.
The United States has made this mistake before. After Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched a series of initiatives to block the entry of people from Muslim-majority countries as a security measure to prevent follow-on attacks. The most sweeping was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, in which nearly all male immigrants and travelers from two dozen Muslim-majority nations and North Korea faced what could be called “extreme vetting”; each time they tried to enter the United States, they were pulled aside for hours of secondary screening and forced to undergo intrusive questioning by border officials. Those already living here had to register with the government, face similar questioning and prove their lawful status.