This weekend, we saw again what happens when the federal government acts on the basis of executive orders rather than statutes that proceed through Congress, are subject to hearings and debates before being approved by our elected representatives, and get signed into law by the President, as the Constitution contemplates.
Late Friday afternoon, President Trump issued an executive order on immigration. Like many executive orders, this one features dense references to statutes and programs that makes it beyond the comprehension of normal Americans. The order has multiple components, but the ones that had an immediate effect over the weekend indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days to allow refugee vetting procedures to be reviewed, and blocked citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days. (The last component has people talking about the Trump Administration imposing a “Muslim ban”; the Trump Administration denies that, noting that the seven countries listed were actually identified for special treatment by the Obama Administration and that many other Muslim-majority countries are not included on the list.)
The order was issued, and then . . . chaos reigned. Were people with “green cards” — that is, permits that allow them to live and work permanently in the United States — subject, or not subject, to the bans? First they apparently were, then the Trump Administration said they weren’t. In the meantime, international airports and security officials struggled to figure out how they were supposed to implement the ban, unsuspecting travelers were left in limbo in airport concourses, lawyers filed lawsuits, different federal district courts issued different orders about different parts of the executive order, and now it’s not entirely clear who can or should be doing what, and for how long. It’s to the point that, because a federal court ruling in Boston is different and perhaps broader than a federal court ruling in New York, immigration lawyers are encouraging international travelers to re-route through Boston’s Logan Airport, just in case.
All of this is aside from the merits of the executive order, which has been widely viewed, in the Unites States and abroad, as a sign that the country that features the welcoming Statue of Liberty on its eastern shore is now in the hands of paranoid xenophobes. And the confusion about the terms and implementation of the executive order just make the black eye America has absorbed a little larger and a little darker.
It was clear that the Trump Administration was going to do something about immigration; it was one of Trump’s principal campaign themes, and so far he has acted on things pretty much like he said he would. But it’s also another example of why government by far-reaching executive order is just bad policy, period — whether the executive orders are issued by the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration, or any other Administration. We need to stop government by executive edict and administrative thunderbolt. It’s time that Congress started to do its job.