Did President Obama ‘Ban’ Iraqi Refugees?

refugees at jfk, jfk protests

Protestors rally during a demonstration against the Trump immigration ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 28, 2017 in New York City. (Getty)

In the furor against President Donald Trump’s ban on immigration, some are bringing up history.

Did President Barack Obama also ban refugees from Iraq?

A 2013 ABC News article reported, “The State Department stopped processing Iraq refugees for six months in 2011, federal officials told ABC News – even for many who had heroically helped U.S. forces as interpreters and intelligence assets.” The ABC News expose is the source of most claims that Obama “banned” or “stopped” Iraqi refugee immigration for a time after two Iraqi refugees who had also been to Syria were indicted on terrorism charges in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

However, The Washington Post reported that a former Obama administration official named Jon Finer has “denied that any ban in Iraqi refugee admissions was put in place under Obama.”

“While the flow of Iraqi refugees slowed significantly during the Obama administration’s review, refugees continued to be admitted to the United States during that time, and there was not a single month in which no Iraqis arrived here,” Finer wrote in Foreign Policy. “In other words, while there were delays in processing, there was no outright ban.” Another official backed up Finer’s account to the Post.

The Post did reprint this 2011 exchange between Republican Senator from Maine, Susan Collins, and then Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as to whether “a hold had been placed on Iraqi visa applications.” Collins asked at the congressional hearing: “So my question is, is there a hold on that population until they can be more stringently vetted to ensure that we’re not letting into this country, people who would do us harm?” Napolitano responded,

Yep. Let me, if I might, answer your question two parts. First part, with respect to the 56, 57,000 who were resettled pursuant to the original resettlement program, they have all been revetted against all of the DHS databases, all of the NCTC [National Counter Terrorism Center] databases and the Department of Defense’s biometric databases and so that work has now been done and focused.

Trump’s executive order stops all Iraqi citizens from temporarily entering the U.S. “on any visa category,” affecting those trying to visit family or come here for work, in addition to live. It also affects six other countries. It originally included permanent legal residents of the U.S. with green cards, but the Department of Homeland Security later clarified that green card holders would be allowed into the country.

While Obama did slow the refugee program, it did not impact green card holders, or anyone with a visa. It also did not affect refugees who had already gone through the vetting process. Trump’s travel ban initially barred entry to the United States to those groups, causing a chaotic situation for travelers from the seven affected countries and leading to protests at airports across the country.

“Obama’s policy did not prevent all citizens of that country, including green-card holders, from traveling the United States. Trump’s policy is much more sweeping, though officials have appeared to pull back from barring permanent U.S. residents,” the Washington Post reports.

Obama after presidency, Obama white house, Obama plans after presidency

Obama during his final press conference as President. (Getty)

Trump’s order gives preference to religious minority groups, such as Christians, when the admissions resume, according to The New York Times.

Obama didn’t give any preference to religious minority groups, and his action was limited to refugee resettlement (certainly, it didn’t affect green card holders, for example). However, Obama’s slowdown in Iraqi refugee admittance had consequences for some people and was driven by the terrorism case involving refugees, ABC News reported. The network reported that, as a result of the delays, an “Iraqi who had aided American troops was assassinated before his refugee application could be processed, because of the immigration delays.” (One of the first men detained under Trump’s executive order, Hameed Darweesh, was an Iraqi interpreter for the U.S. military. He has now been released under an exemption in the order.)

Trump raised the Obama situation in a January 29 statement defending his immigration executive order. He wrote, “My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months. The seven countries named in the executive order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror.”

Others dispute Trump’s contention that his order is similar to Obama’s.

Why did Obama’s administration slow processing the applications?

It stemmed from the case out of Bowling Green, Kentucky. According to the Associated Press, “Two Iraqi refugees plotted to send sniper rifles, Stinger missiles and money to al-Qaida operatives waging an insurgency back home against U.S. troops.”

Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi were accused in the plot. ABC reported at the time, “Several dozen suspected terrorist bombmakers, including some believed to have targeted American troops, may have mistakenly been allowed to move to the United States as war refugees.” Among them, said ABC, was Alwan: “The Iraqi had claimed to be a refugee who faced persecution back home,” but his fingerprints were found on a piece of cordless phone wired to a bomb. Court documents show that the men admitted trying to blow up U.S. soldiers with IEDs in Iraq, and one said he’d participated in an attack that killed American service members. Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, provoked controversy when she referred to the Bowling Green plot as the “Bowling Green massacre.” The men were indicted, and ultimately convicted, before they could cause any havoc on American soil, and charging documents show they were accused of trying to funnel weaponry back to insurgents based in Iraq.

As a result of the case, though, the government decided to check IED devices for fingerprints, according to ABC. More stringent vetting procedures were created. The Department of Justice press release announcing the two men had been sentenced quotes the U.S. Attorney as saying of them: “These are experienced terrorists who willingly and enthusiastically participated in what they believed were insurgent support operations designed to harm American soldiers in Iraq.”

The Mirror describes what Obama did this way: “Paused approvals of refugee applications from Iraq for a period of six months after two Iraqi al-Qaeda terrorists were discovered living as refugees in Kentucky.” The news site says Obama’s action was in response to a “specific event” and designed to give authorities time to do the fingerprint matches off recovered IEDs.

But the Post wrote that it could find no evidence of a ban outside the ABC News article. In a fact check, the Post wrote, ” Obama did not announce a ban on visa applications. In fact… administration officials danced around that question. There was certainly a lot of news reporting that visa applications had slowed to a trickle. But the Obama administration never said it had a policy to halt all applications. Indeed, it is now clear that no ban was put in place. Even so, the delays did not go unnoticed.”

trump immigration ban, immigration protests, jfk protests

Anti-Trump protesters at JFK airport. (Getty)

According to National Review, President Obama also admitted very few Syrian refugees during his tenure overall, although the pace escalated in his final year.

There was some precedent for immigration restrictions in U.S. history based on nation state. In 1980, according to Politifact, Jimmy Carter “ordered administration officials to ‘invalidate all visas issued to Iranian citizens for future entry into the United States.'”

Here’s specifically what Carter said in his address announcing those sanctions: “…the Secretary of Treasury [State] and the Attorney General will invalidate all visas issued to Iranian citizens for future entry into the United States, effective today. We will not reissue visas, nor will we issue new visas, except for compelling and proven humanitarian reasons or where the national interest of our own country requires. This directive will be interpreted very strictly.”

jimmy carter

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. (Getty)

The Carter measure came in the height of tensions over the Iran hostage crisis. Carter also ordered Iranian students to report to U.S. immigration. Trump’s order affects more countries but appears also tailored to nation states rather than the religious test he floated during the presidential campaign. However, because they are all Muslim majority and some minority religions are exempt from the ban, some are criticizing Trump for ordering what they are deeming a “Muslim ban.” See the language in the order relating to that point here:

Trump denies that his order amounts to a Muslim ban, saying in a statement that 40 Muslim majority countries throughout the world are not affected by his executive order. He has argued that religious minority groups are singled out for persecution in the affected countries.

The courts will ultimately decide.

Pew Research noted that “after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. largely suspended refugee resettlement for about three months while security measures were examined.”

As for President Chester Arthur, in 1882, he “signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stopped Chinese immigration for 10 years…The ban also prevented Chinese persons from becoming U.S. citizens, and the exclusion was subsequently extended permanently through later legislation,” reported ABC News.

In 1917, during World War I, Congress passed legislation that barred “most Asian nation immigration overall, with the exception of Japan…and the Philippines,” according to ABC News, which added that the U.S. only allowed 105 Chinese people to move to the country each year until 1965. In several immigration acts in the 1920s, reported ABC, the country established “a wide-scale quota system based on national origins.”

Trump’s immigration ban – which has been met by intense criticism and protests at airports throughout the country – temporarily stops immigration from six Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya. The order also indefinitely stops immigration from Syria, stops all refugee resettlement for 120 days, and caps 2017 refugee admittance to 50,000.

A federal judge granted an emergency stay for part of the executive order on January 28, ruling that the government could not send back immigrants from the affected countries who are at airports being detained because they might suffer irreparable harm. A lawsuit has been filed asking the courts to deem the entire Trump executive order unconstitutional under the 5th Amendment, contending it subjects Muslims to disparate treatment. The Trump order had also affected people with green cards and those visiting America to see family or for work; there is a provision for case-by-case exemption in some circumstances. There have been reports of students, professors, and others stuck overseas or at airports who had lived in the United States for years.

Republicans opposed to Muslim Ban, Republicans opposed to Trump, Donald Trump protests

People attend an afternoon rally in Battery Park to protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s new immigration policies on January 29, 2017 in New York City. (Getty)

According to, the countries Trump selected for his executive order derived from a previous list created by Obama, although the president was only restricting access to a visa waiver program: “The countries whose citizens are barred entirely from entering the United States is based on a bill that Obama signed into law in December 2015. Obama signed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act as part of an omnibus spending bill. The legislation restricted access to 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.”

National Review says that, before 2016, “when Obama dramatically ramped up refugee admissions, Trump’s 50,000 stands roughly in between a typical year of refugee admissions in George W. Bush’s two terms and a typical year in Obama’s two terms.”

The New York Times reports that about the same number of Christians and Muslims were admitted to the U.S. as refugees in 2016, despite Trump’s claims that Christians had basically no chance to get asylum under President Obama.

According to Pew Research, Obama allowed in relatively small numbers of refugees from the affected countries, although the pace increased in 2016. The numbers are still relatively small. For example, in 2016, Obama allowed in 12,587 refugees from Syria; 9,880 from Iraq; 3,750 from Iran; and 9,020 from Somalia. The Congo had the largest number of refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2016, Pew Research found.

A 2016 Fox News report found that Congressional data revealed “hundreds of terror plots have been stopped in the U.S. since 9/11 – mostly involving foreign-born suspects, including dozens of refugees.” The report noted that some of those involved refugees from the affected countries, but other countries had more (Pakistan was top), and some terrorist suspects were born in America.

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Learn more about Carter and Iranian visas here:

Did Jimmy Carter ‘Ban’ Iranian Refugees & Students?

Did President Carter ban” Iranian refugees and students? During the Iran hostage crisis, Carter took steps toward restricting Iranian nationalists from the U.S.

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  1. Rather a different situation and the difference defines political ends. In 2011, the procedures were found to be inadequate (some Iraqi jihadists had gotten into the US). The ban was put in place in response. It was also put into place quietly for the reason that the Administration (and State and the NSA) didn’t want to inflame tensions against the US. The President’s new order was a political statement. It was done publicly precisely to make a point. Whether it makes sense to publicly attack our friends (such as the Iraqi government who is our front line and our foot soldiers in the fight against jihadism) and validate ISIS’s attacks on America as our country being anti-Islamic is a judgment we know folks differ on. But the circumstances and methods were different.

    • There is some truth in this. I think it’s still arguable whether the procedures are adequate and the threat of infiltration is significantly higher. Not making a huge fuss about it is actually quite sensible. Yes, it does make a political point. Where it falls apart is “the Iraqi Government are our friends” …. this week :) which isn’t the actual issue (hence Iraq being on the DHS list), and ISIS don’t need “reasons” to attack America , they will do it anyway.

      Criticising the way Trump has done it is perfectly reasonable. The blanket use of the term “liar” because he says it is “similar” to Obama’s actions is however absurd.

      • Saying that it was a ban is stretching things. There were over 6,000 Iraqi refugees admitted in 2011, as opposed to 18,000 in 2010 and 16,000 in 2012. The flow slowed in 2011, but it did not stop.

        • Well, yeah, because as ABC reported, and as Janet Napolitano said, there was a 6 month hold, which would mean for the other half the year, refugees would be able to get in as easily as in 2010 and 2012….so obviously 2011 would be a smaller number.

    • If the Iraqi government were our best buds as you claim, then they would have been enthusiastic about accepting a Status of Forces Agreement during the Obama Administration. I believe this to be a misconception on your part.

  2. Mexican Billionaire Democrat George Soros is paying all these stupid protesters to protest
    President Donald J. Trump again because some people coming in the U.S. have to be screened.
    I pray George Soros drops dead soon, because he is pure evil. President Donald J. Trump is
    trying to protect the American people from evil people coming in to destroy us and these very
    stupid people think President Trump is terrible because he’s trying to save their lives. God Help Us!
    Hillary Clinton thinks it’s terrible also, and of course if she would have been elected, she would
    have left all the evil people come in and blow up this country. Thank God, Hillary Clinton lost.

    • Soros is Hungarian and wanted by the Hungary. Carlos Slim is the Mexican billionaire globalist who controls the NYT propaganda.

      • Soros is trying to destroy our country within. He is a nazi collaborated who pointed out thousand of jews in hungary during the nazi occupation. He sts he has no guilt about that behavior, citing only that if he didn’t do it then someone else would. Although he was just a young teenages at the time, he is still to this day devoid of any conscience no matter what he does. He has paid for the women’s march with the pussy cat hats, has always backed the criminal clintons an the dem party. The more muslims in our country the merrier. He gets ready for his revolutions or just guts a nations economy. He is so rich that he can easily shape the world as he sees it. Large demonstration and riots takes tons of planning, information sites and money. Paid thugs to riot, break things, light fires and get press coverage for someones agenda that he cares less about. Trust me this criminal has no compassion for anyone, just his own agenda and you liberal snowflakes are his sweet sheeps.

    • Are you as simple as you sound? 1. George Soros is Hungarian 2. You need to do some more research on George Soros before declaring someone pure evil 3. he is not paying anyone to protest 4. the world is not as simple as evil people coming in vs good people in the USA already 5. US citizens already kill each other in such vast numbers through gun fights that the rest of the world stares in amazement 6. If it was really about stopping evil people, why has he chosen only seven countries? Why not ban every country? 7. Why is Egypt or UAE or Saudi Arabia not included in the list?

      • America has been BANNING people from other countries for years, now the leftists have a problem because it is their PROTECTED SPECIES, the Muslims. Some of you Americans are so retarded, get out a little and see the world, talk to people other than other worthless leftist scum.

      • Ummmm…

        I can’t find a really good textbook example, but I think you got troll-baited.
        Maybe time to up your internet sophistication level.

      • If you have heard or read, the reasons why Egypt or UAE or Saudi Arabia is not on the list, because there country have a established data records on their people, they share information with our country, even thought the Saudi were suspects in the 9/11, the other 7 counties don’t have any records and don’t communicate with the US, that the differences why Egypt or UAE or Saudi Arabia is not on the list?

      • Your question #7 suggests you believe the problem with the EO is that the number of nations targeted is too small? You want to quibble over which nations….? We can do that all day and not even like-minded people are going to split those hairs the same way. Pointless question.

    • I was at Los Angeles International airport and participated in the rallies on Saturday and Sunday and believe me George Soros is paying no one. It is sad that people that believe this trash actually can legally vote. Go back to watching wrestling and stay on your couch.

  3. Great reporting. I thought your piece was informative and gave all sides to the situation including those in past administration. Also poster West has a valid point.

  4. lol. I love your justifications based on the why, not the how.

    You’re either against it or you’re for it. Can’t have it both ways.

    Trump’s ban IS a direct result of the San Bernadino killings. He made the promise after that terrorist attack that he would not let them come into this country and that’s exactly what he did.

    I know you’re not used to a politician doing their job or staying true to their word but that’s exactly what Trump has done.

    It’s pretty spineless to say “it was okay for obama because of this, and okay for Carter because of this, but totally not okay for trump to do the same thing”

    • It’s true that Trump did promise a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country and he is doing that apparently. I never thought that was a good idea and still don’t so I can’t say I’m super happy he’s living up to his promises.

      But, to the topic of the article, there are important distinctions between the Obama action and the Trump EO. Trump banned legal migrants (i.e., green card holders) from entering (thankfully reversed). It stopped people already with visas, including people already in flight from entering the country. Trump is preventing Syrians refugees from entering indefinitely (and these are the people who need it among the most). So, no I don’t think anyone is saying it’s okay for Obama and Trump to do the same thing – they are specifically NOT doing the same thing which is the whole point of this article.

      • Someone, America has been banning people for years, I myself was banned for 8 years, didnt see you leftist scum protesting at the airport. So cry me a river, I could care less about some retarded member of a death cult whos only goal in life is to be a professional victim, and oh yeah, convert your dumb backsides to Islam.

      • This is a slightly wierd argument. It is true that Trump’s ban is more extensive (and is being unwound apparently), but it is actually refugees that most of the complaining is about. This is the group that are the most concern, and the group Obama stopped/froze/limited/whatever.

        It seems to me the “it’s not identical so you can’t suggest it is similar” argument.

    • The San Bernadino killings were perpetrated by a US citizen of Pakistani descent. Rizwan Farook was born in Chicago. If it is a direct result, why is Pakistan not on the list? Omar Mateen was a US citizen of Afghan descent, why is Afghanistan not on the list? The 9/11 bombers were from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. Why are those countries not on the list?

      • The reasons why Egypt or UAE or Saudi Arabia is not on the list, because there counties have a established record data on their people, they share information with our country, even though the Saudi were suspects in the 9/11, and one of the Pakistani were tied to the San Bernadino killings, the other 7 counties don’t have any records data on the majority of their citizens and don’t communicate with the US, that the differences why Egypt or UAE or Saudi Arabia is not on the list?

  5. Idiots on loose…..Congress overode President Truman who voted no banning and congress allowed the McCarran/walter ban in 1952, OmyBama banned iragis… so really what difference does it make. Truman was DEM. And, residents of the US cannot get into Canada without proper papers. I was in canada once in my life with wife and son and all I had to show was my drivers license. wife and son showed nothing.

  6. So what’s the difference with Trump’s action?

    First, Obama responded to an actual threat — the discovery that two Iraqi refugees had been implicated in bombmaking in Iraq that had targeted U.S. troops. (Iraq, after all, was a war zone.) Under congressional pressure, officials decided to reexamine all previous refugees and impose new screening procedures, which led to a slowdown in processing new applications. Trump, by contrast, issued his executive order without any known triggering threat. (His staff has pointed to attacks unrelated to the countries named in his order.)

    Second, Obama did not announce a ban on visa applications. In fact, as seen in Napolitano’s answer to Collins, administration officials danced around that question. There was certainly a lot of news reporting that visa applications had slowed to a trickle. But the Obama administration never said it had a policy to halt all applications. Indeed, it is now clear that no ban was put in place. Even so, the delays did not go unnoticed, so there was a lot of critical news reporting at the time about the angst of Iraqis waiting for approval.

    Third, Obama’s policy did not prevent all citizens of that country, including green-card holders, from traveling to the United States. Trump’s policy is much more sweeping, though officials have appeared to pull back from barring permanent U.S. residents.

    We have sought comment from the White House and from Obama administration officials and so may update this if more information becomes available. But so far this is worthy of at least Two Pinocchios.

    Update: In light of the response from Obama administration officials that there never was a point when Iraqi resettlement was stopped or banned, we are updating this ruling to Three Pinocchios. Iraqi refugee processing was slowed, in response to a specific threat, but it was not halted. The Trump White House, meanwhile, has failed to provide any evidence for its statement.

  7. This is the kind of Journalism which we desperately need BACK! Well researched. Well sited references. Coverage of all angles. Lets the reader figure out their own opinions.

  8. A distinction without a difference. What this boils down to is democrats cannot accept defeat in a mature way and they continue to show the world why they never deserve power ever again.

  9. Build a wall and lock down 6 countries that harbor terrorist regimes and training camps. Obviously these fat dumb and entitled democrats never lost a loved one to terrorism

  10. Trump already let 800-1200 in after a week of extreme vetting.  This may even be larger number of people let in than the numbers let in during the 6 months Obama ban.  So Obama and Trump are basically doing the similar thing—-banning most people and letting some in on a one on one basis if they pass the extreme vetting during this period.

  11. I think we should wait on banning anyone until we have several Bataclan style (high numbers, explosives, escaped suspects) terror attacks…

  12. Trump’s ban makes total sense! Here is betting that the people who are against it would never step forward and say, “Please put them in my neighborhood!” We have to stop the flow or we will be completely overrrun by illegals many of whom are terrorists and criminals.