Did Obama ban refugees in 2011? Fact-checking Trump's statements about Obama and refugees


In a statement Sunday, President Donald Trump defended his executive order targeting Muslim immigrants and refugees by saying that his policy is "similar to what [former] President (Barack Obama) did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months."

Like so much of what Trump says, this is false: the Obama administration did not ban refugees from Iraq for six months in 2011. 

What really happened in 2011?

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In May 2011, two Iraqis in Kentucky were arrested on terrorism charges after admitting to having attacked U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The FBI suggested at the time that "dozens" of terrorists may have entered the U.S. posing as refugees, leading the Obama administration to "re-examine the records of 58,000 Iraqis who had been settled in the United States. It "imposed new, more extensive background checks on Iraqi refugees," according to the Washington Post.

This significantly slowed the admissions process, the Post reports, but did not amount to a "ban," as Trump described it. Iraqi refugees were still being admitted to the U.S., albeit at a more sluggish pace.

Foreign Policy notes several more differences between the Obama administration's actions in 2011 and Trump's order on Friday. The Obama review applied only to Iraqi's applying for Special Immigrant Visas – which help those who have assisted the U.S. in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – and not to virtually all immigrants from seven countries, as Trump's does. Further, the Obama review came in response to a specific threat; Trump has not offered information demonstrating a need for his ban.

The seven countries listed in Trump's immigration ban did come from Obama's Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, which he signed in 2015. That law barred citizens from or anyone who had recently traveled to those seven countries from accessing the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from 38 countries who are visiting the United States for less than 90 days to enter without a visa.

But, as Foreign Policy notes, the Obama legislation did not prevent anyone from coming to the U.S., and the administration ensured that it did not keep journalists, aid workers, officials from international organizations and other categories of travelers from entering the country.

According to Foreign Policy, Obama's 2011 measure did not bar refugees from entering the U.S., did not have the chaotic roll-out that Trump's order did and resulted in a stronger vetting process.

Feb. 3, 2017, 5:57 p.m. This story has been updated.