Even before the ban, Europe was far more open.

Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. Was Hardly Wide Open to Muslims Before Trump

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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President Donald Trump's immigration order was so boorish, purposely hostile and ill-conceived that it has obscured an inconvenient truth for many of those who oppose it: The U.S. was refusing entry to many Muslims long before he took office.

In a statement Sunday night, Trump said his choice of seven countries -- Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen -- matched those singled out by the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, which was passed under President Barack Obama. Far short of a ban -- and far from stranding green card holders and dual citizens at the border -- that legislation required dual citizens of those countries and anyone who traveled there to apply for a visa to enter the U.S. But the fact remains that these countries were first formally singled out as potential threats under Obama, not Trump.

Trump was hammered for keeping other nations off his list despite the similar threats posed by them. For example, Saudi Arabia, whose citizens perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, or Tunisia, which, on a per capita basis, provides the Islamic State with more fighters than any other country in the world. That, too, is in keeping with U.S. practice before he took office. Just look at visitor visa rejection statistics. In 2016, Saudi Arabia had a 4 percent refusal rate for U.S. non-immigrant B visas, compared with an average of 31.4 percent for all countries not included in the visa waiver program; Tunisia's rejection rate was 16 percent.

All in all, however, the U.S. visa issuance statistics, with Visa Waiver Program countries excluded, is skewed slightly against Muslim nations. 

Were Muslims Welcome in the U.S.?
Refusal rates for U.S. B-category visas, 2016, percent
 
Source: U.S. State Department, author's calculations

It's possible that a large part part of the anti-Muslim bias is explained by the Muslim world's relative poverty. After all, wealthy Persian Gulf nations enjoy stellar admission rates. But there are plenty of poor countries in Africa and Asia whose citizens are more welcome in the U.S. than Muslims. Refusal rates for nationals of Zimbabwe, Timor-Leste or India are below average. 

Europe's passport-free Schengen area also shows a similar, slight anti-Muslim slant in its visa policy, but the refusal rates there are far lower than in the U.S. Based on 2014 data, the average Schengen visa rejection rate for a Muslim country was 14.5 percent, compared with about 9 percent for other countries (excluding those entitled to visa-free travel).

The high refusal rates for Muslim nations in the U.S. have been rather stable for the last 10 years, though they have fluctuated both ways for individual countries. So during the George W. Bush presidency, Muslim visitors were just about as stringently vetted as under the Obama administration. 

Another part of Trump's executive order imposed a blanket 120-day ban on the resettlement of refugees. But even before Trump came to power, Europe bore the brunt of the global refugee crisis. In 2016, the U.S. received 84,994 refugees. Germany alone -- with just a quarter of the U.S. population -- granted refugee status to 246,802 people.

To some extent, Europe is paying for its more open policy: Lately, it has seen more deaths from terrorism than the U.S. But the difference is too small to justify the huge divergence in U.S. and European travel and refugee policies. 

That divergence emerged long before Trump. The enormity of 9/11 may partially explain it, but, whatever the reasons, the U.S. hasn't been the wide-open country both Trump supporters and opponents imagine. Those who protest Trump's rough action today may not realize what kind of reputation the U.S. already has among international travelers who need a visa to go there. Long waiting times and the need to travel, sometimes hundreds of miles, to a consulate for a visa interview and fingerprinting -- which will be repeated at the U.S. border, anyway -- are the norm. So are the rejections, which are never explained: The U.S. reserves the right to keep out whomever it doesn't want for whatever reason.

If traveling to the U.S. is a privilege and most of the world's population is treated as nuisance supplicants, then Trump's order is just another step -- a particularly ugly and arrogant one, to be sure -- down that road. Otherwise, having run into staunch resistance from the courts with his order, Trump will keep his election promises in a quieter way -- by tightening visa eligibility criteria and ratcheting up visa refusal rates. No one may even notice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net