Travel Bans in Historical Perspective
Executive Orders Have Defined "Terrorists" Since Nixon
On September 24, 2017, President Trump issued a third executive order (termed “Travel Ban 3.0” in the media) restricting travel to the United States as well as the admission of refugees. The restricted countries are now Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, and North Korea—the first six of which are Muslim-majority. Since Trump’s stated rationale for the measure, first issued on January 27, is protecting Americans, it’s worth asking how travel bans and immigration restrictions via executive order have shaped perceptions that Muslims are terrorists.
On the evening of Friday, February 3, 2017, Judge James Robart of the District Court for the Western District of Washington blocked Trump’s first executive order suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, my ancestral home. The next day I drove from my home in northern San Diego County to Los Angeles International Airport to offer translation services to lawyers there. On the way back, stuck in the grueling traffic of Los Angeles, I began to wonder whether there had been an American travel ban directed at Middle Easterners before.
Later that week one of my graduate students, Gretta Ziminsky, informed me that Richard Nixon had set the precedent of banning travel from the Middle East through executive order. (Before Nixon, immigration restrictions targeting Middle Eastern populations had been part of broad pieces of legislation, such as the Immigration Act of 1924.) Trump’s fiat is therefore embedded in a deeper American history of conceiving Middle Eastern populations as security threats. Taking Nixon’s policy as a starting point, we can see how government attitudes toward Arab and Muslim Americans have changed over time.
Nixon’s executive response strained resources, alienated Middle Eastern states and Arab Americans, and achieved little. But a precedent had been established.
My graduate student’s MA thesis examines the historical evolution of terrorism in the imagination of American policy elites. We both assumed that these elites saw terrorism as tangential to the superpower rivalry with the USSR, even when left-leaning groups, some of them Soviet proxies, conducted attacks in the Middle East, Europe, and South America. We also assumed that before 9/11, the American government viewed terrorism as an international problem that did not affect the United States.
As I began researching the subject for myself, I found out that the Nixon travel ban was a response to the Palestinian group Black September’s attack on Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics on September 25, 1972. Hours after the attacks, Nixon sent the secretary of state the “Memorandum Establishing a Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism,” which formed a working group that included the State Department, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the CIA, and the FBI. The memo charged the working group with drafting new domestic and foreign anti-terrorism policies.1
With a set of directives code-named Operation Boulder, the working group stepped up the vetting of visa applicants from the Middle East in US embassies abroad and in Washington, and monitored Arabs and Arab Americans domestically. According to legal scholar Susan Akram, Operation Boulder was “perhaps the first concerted U.S. government effort to target Arabs in the U.S. for special investigation with the specific purpose of intimidation, harassment, and to discourage their activism on issues relating to the Middle East.”2
This was the first US government policy carrying the implication that all Arabs were potential terrorists. Although government documents don’t explicitly detail the origin and evolution of this view, Akram argues that negative stereotypes in American popular culture and news media, as well as lobbying by pro-Israel groups, all played a role.3 It is also unclear just how the administration settled on travel restrictions as the means of preventing terrorism in the United States, when there were no indications that Black September or other Middle Eastern groups planned to target Americans within the country’s borders.
Nonetheless, by April 1974, officials understood that the rationale behind Operation Boulder was to monitor Arab travelers, especially Palestinians (including refugees among them). That month the State Department issued a memo reading, in part, “In light of the obvious and continuing threat from potential Arab terrorists, particularly Palestinians, none of the agencies in the Working Group wishes to eliminate Operation Boulder at this time.” Palestinians were thus a security threat, even though the US was not expecting a major influx of Palestinians. 4
The memo, however, did highlight criticisms of Operation Boulder emerging within the State Department. There were problems keeping up with the operation’s demands, including extra paperwork required to vet visa applicants in Middle Eastern embassies and in Washington. About 40 to 50 visa applicants per day were vetted, and only 23 visas were denied during the program’s run.5 The memo also argued that revising vetting procedures would repair America’s image in the Middle East: “day-to-day relations with Arab countries will be improved at a time when an improvement would be particularly beneficial.” Nevertheless, the FBI objected to modifying the process, and the State Department deferred to its concerns.
The Nixon-era measures also monitored Arab Americans domestically.6 The American Civil Liberties Union wrote to the attorney general on February 8, 1974, criticizing Operation Boulder as unfairly targeting “ethnic Arabs who were so defined on the basis of a person’s parentage” and painting the whole endeavor as a “fishing expedition” to gather information, violating the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments.7
The letter documents FBI agents accusing Arabs of belonging to terrorist organizations as “an investigative tactic” that would “elicit the subject’s cooperation by scaring him or her.” Immigration authorities approached Arab students in the United States, questioned them about their political beliefs, and required them to sign affidavits that they would not engage in political activities. Selective application of technicalities in immigration and naturalization laws were used to deport Arabs.8 The Munich attack hardly figured in defenses of these tactics; instead, they were justified in vague language as combating terrorism. This shift in conceiving the problem was likely influenced by tensions after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
The FBI eventually terminated Operation Boulder in 1975 after questioning its effectiveness.9 But the conflation of Arabs and terrorists was accomplished. Nixon’s executive response to Black September strained government resources, alienated Middle Eastern states and Arab Americans, and achieved little. But a precedent had been established.
Immigration authorities approached Arab students and required them to sign affidavits that they would not engage in political activities.
With the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, the administration of Jimmy Carter canceled visas issued to Iranians and monitored those already in the country.10 But the protean threat of Al-Qaida presented a singular challenge because it was a transnational, nonstate actor. Where Carter had targeted a single nationality, which included not only Muslims but also Iranian Jews, Christians, and members of the Bahá’í religion, the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, represented a throwback to Nixon-era measures that blurred the distinction between international and domestic security. Of course, the George W. Bush administration used force against Afghanistan when Taliban leaders refused to turn in Osama bin Laden, but in 2002 it also initiated the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), targeting Muslim immigrants as potential terrorists.
It is now mostly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that is perceived as a protean threat to the “homeland.” Barack Obama disbanded NSEERS as a failure in 2016, but Trump’s election has reinvigorated efforts to target Muslim citizens, immigrants, and travelers as potential domestic terrorists. While on the campaign trail, Trump responded to the Paris attacks of November 2015 by declaring that he would create a database to register Muslims in the United States, and after the San Bernardino attack in December, he vowed to impose a “Muslim ban.” Trump’s first executive order targeted travelers from seven nations without specifying a religious test, but the fact that these countries were predominantly Muslim raised suspicions within and beyond Muslim communities in the United States. Unlike George W. Bush, who repeatedly stressed that the United States was not at war with Islam, Trump did not make this distinction successfully.
In response to terrorist attacks in Europe, Nixon and Trump rapidly issued security measures, perhaps not noticing terrorist attacks against civilians within the Middle East because they commanded smaller headlines. Refugees suffered as a result of belonging to groups deemed security threats: Palestinians then, Syrians today. As we wait for a Supreme Court ruling on the new executive order’s constitutionality, we should keep its historical precedents in mind, as well as the human costs of associating Arabs and Muslims with terrorism. The complaints lodged in 1974 resonate with the situation they might face in 2017—and beyond.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an associate professor in the Department of History at California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History; The Modern History of Iraq (4th ed.); and the forthcoming A Concise History of the Middle East (12th ed.).
1. “Memorandum Establishing a Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism,” September 25, 1972, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=3596.
2. Susan M. Akram, “The Aftermath of September 11, 2001: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims in America,” Arab Studies Quarterly 24, no. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2002): 68.
3. Akram, “The Aftermath of September 11, 2001.”
4. “Memorandum from the Special Assistant to the Secretary of State and Coordinator for Combating Terrorism (Hoffacker) to the Deputy Undersecretary for Management (Brown),” Washington, April 23, 1974, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76ve03/d214.
5. Yazan al-Saadi, “Revisiting US-Arab Diplomacy: Operation Boulder and the Oil Embargo,” Al-Akhbar, April 8, 2013, http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/15474.
6. Nadine Naber, “Arab Americans and U.S. Racial Formations,” in Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber, Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 34.
7. American Civil Liberties Union, “Operation Boulder,” February 8, 1974, https://declassifiedboulder.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/detroitletter.pdf.
8. ACLU, “Operation Boulder.”
9. Al-Saadi, “Revisiting US-Arab Diplomacy.”
10. Jimmy Carter, “Sanctions against Iran Remarks Announcing U.S. Actions,” American Presidency Project, April 7, 1980, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=33233.
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