White House

Trump's Corrosive Incompetence on Migrants

People, firms and U.S. allies cannot plan against a background of officially sanctioned chaos.

That's no way to make the planes run on time.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Maybe President Donald Trump needs to be taken literally after all. He promised a dumb, needlessly cruel and counterproductive policy on immigrants and refugees, and within days of taking office, that's exactly what he delivered.

There's so much to dislike about the executive order on entry of nationals from Iraq, Syria and five other designated countries that it's hard to know where to start. But the main thing was not its evil intent: That, I think, has been exaggerated. The main thing was its sheer blithering incompetence.

That people in transit to the U.S. with valid visas and green-card holders returning home should be treated as violators and detained or ejected at the border simply beggars belief. In effect, the U.S. government was announcing that permissions granted after its own elaborate processes had been fully complied with were suddenly worthless -- revoked as though on a whim, without notice. It's an approach that promises to sow corrosive legal and economic uncertainty.

Bear in mind, the immediate victims of this policy, the people stopped at ports of entry, are overwhelmingly friends of the United States. People with employment-based visas and legal permanent residents -- people who weren't born here but who've met demanding requirements to live and work here -- are typically would-be Americans, as patriotic as one could wish and grateful for the opportunity. The country has no better ambassadors in the wider world. Trump has told them not just that they might not be wanted, but that their distress is of no account. Only a fool could think that message advances American interests.

Reasonable people can disagree about how careful the U.S. should be in restricting entry of nationals from those and other countries. They can also disagree, until the courts have ruled, about exactly what the law requires. There's a weak but permissible case for a pause on new visa applications while policy is reviewed -- a move that needn't have caused the chaos inflicted this weekend. But no reasonable person can support a policy that acts, in effect, retroactively, nullifying permissions already granted -- which treats innocent people so badly and is executed shambolically, which undermines America's friends abroad and exposes the country to ridicule.    

Perhaps the president and his team didn't foresee or intend the entirely predictable pile-up of innocent victims, international outcry, and serious embarrassment to governments (such as Britain's) that were inclined to do business with Trump. Nobody in authority seemed to know what the policy actually meant. Relevant agencies hadn't been consulted. Yesterday, for example, the White House said that the policy sort of maybe doesn't apply to green-card holders, and sort of maybe doesn't apply to dual citizens. This apparently came as news to Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security.  

But the idea that these consequences were unintended is far from reassuring. To be effective, presidents need to meet some minimal standard of coherence and predictability. People and companies make plans based on official undertakings and judgments about the future course of policy. When governments change, policy changes, of course. But inflicting heavy costs on people and firms by blithely canceling previous rulings, reveling in needless turbulence, and adjusting broken policy on the run while insisting everything's fine, is a formula for maximum uncertainty.

Even if Trump had a point on immigration and national security, this is an approach apt to cripple the U.S. economy at home and abroad. People, firms and U.S. allies cannot plan against a background of officially sanctioned chaos. What are they to make, for instance, of the administration's statement that it may extend its ban to other countries in the future?  

One of the most worrying things about an administration that has gotten off to such a careening clueless start is that it will make crass errors and then dig in to defend them. It's reassuring that courts are pushing back, and that Republican members of Congress have objected in strong terms. It would be better by far if Trump and his team could admit their error and fix it.

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:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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