National Security

Visas and Executive Orders Don’t Mix

By Thomas Armbruster:

In business terms, there is retail visa policy and wholesale.  This goes for immigrant and nonimmigrant visas.  Wholesale is the big policy.  How many immigrant visas will the U.S. provide?  What are the categories?  Is family reunification the goal or attracting entrepreneurs, skilled laborers and the highly educated?  Those big wholesale questions are set forth in the Immigration and Naturalization Act, a law passed by Congress, not Executive Order.  That is the way wholesale visa and immigration policy should be done, with Congress holding hearings and deliberating in public.

Retail visa policy, also based on the law, is executed by Consular Officers in U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, where they interview the individual or family, determine if the person is eligible, and then grant the appropriate visa, if eligible, for a visit or as an immigrant. There are student visas, visas for performers, lots of categories, but the bottom line is the first line of defense happens overseas.  The visa is only permission to appear at a port of entry.  From there, Homeland Security has another look. This system works well, and is designed at each step to bring the students, doctors, tourists, and families that we want to the U.S., and keep out the criminals, terrorists, and narco traffickers that we don’t.

President Trump is using the wholesale approach to tackle a retail problem.  And the result is predictable, with people who are obviously coming to the U.S. for good reason being turned away.   The statistics are pretty clear that the U.S. has little to fear from immigrants.  Lightning is more deadly.  That is, in part, because we not have a pretty good retail system in place, with individuals being scrutinized before they enter.

American embassies and consulates are an effective front line.  Consular Officers speak the host language, they have typically interviewed thousands of people after a short time “on the line” and all sections in the Embassy report to the Consul General with any information about possible terror links.

Keeping out Muslim translators who served American troops and diplomats over the years is not good security policy, and it’s not good business. It’s a glaring example of why this wholesale policy doesn’t make sense. Translators often put their lives on the line for the US. When they were accorded the opportunity, after many years, to come to America with special immigrant visas, many of us who worked with them applauded. Adding our ally Iraq, where many people share our goals, is particularly egregious and puts our diplomats and soldiers working there now at risk.

Those allies need to come to the US as students, as special immigrants, and as advisors to help keep us safe. Special immigrants in particular deserve the visas for services rendered to our country’s security, and it shows other people who are willing to work with us that they won’t be forgotten.

Bringing students to the US can also help shape a generation in a foreign country. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was an exchange student. Wouldn’t we rather have future leaders acquainted with the values of democracy, tolerance, and freedom? Keeping people out does not enhance our security.

Afghanistan is not on the executive order list, but the list is arbitrary enough that it could be. I traveled to Afghanistan three times on temporary duty, first for a month in 2002. At that time, diplomatic security allowed us to travel freely. As a political officer, my job was to understand the culture and mood and report to Washington. My interpreter, Mahmud, was a young man who knew working with the US was dangerous, but he enjoyed it and was good at it. We hopped in a van and traveled throughout Kabul. We went to a mosque. The Imam invited us in for tea, we sat, and he described how he saw the American presence. It was seen as somewhat better than the Soviet invasion, but not much.

The Imam told us that he viewed the US through the lens of an Afghan story about a mouse in a neighbor’s house. The homeowner (Afghanistan) asks the neighbor (the US) for help finding the mouse. The US then proceeds to destroy the home searching for the mouse. It was a telling story that helped me understand the Afghan mindset about the US presence. I would never have gotten such a nuanced view without Mahmud.

My other trips involved intelligence-sharing between Tajikistan and Afghanistan on counternarcotics and a trip to promote cross-border trade. I speak fluent Russian, so I know how powerful it can be to know the language and culture. I didn’t have that advantage in Afghanistan, but with the help of dedicated, excellent interpreters like Mahmud, I was able to fulfill my reporting requirements, initiate intel cooperation that continues today, and bring businessmen to Kabul and Kunduz to promote regional stability.

All countries act in their own self-interest. But if we are to be the leader of the free world, it is in our interest to lead generously, magnanimously, and with the courage to engage the world, not withdraw from it. They say a conservative is just a liberal who has been mugged; it seems a Trump conservative is a conservative who has not traveled enough in the world.

The magnet that draws people to America is our lady in New York Harbor and the values we have cherished from the beginning. Religious freedom, freedom of speech, opportunity—all of those values are what distinguish America and are the virtues that allow us to lead. They are universal values that ring true everywhere. Abandoning these values, like abandoning our friends, is not putting America first. It’s early days for the Trump administration but not too soon for a course correction.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.


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