Policy Questioned at JFK Forum


A discussion on the Trump immigration ban.


In the backdrop of an extremely strict immigration reform enacted by the White House last week, the JFK Jr. Forum hosted a discussion on Friday, February 3, that brought a diverse range of perspectives on the policy together. The panel comprised David French, a staunch conservative writer for the National Review; Juliette Kayyem, lecturer in international security at Harvard Kennedy School; Gil Kerlikowske, Resident Fellow at the IOP and Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection; Moshik Temkin, professor of History and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School; and, the moderator, Professor R. Nicholas Burns also of Harvard Kennedy School. Given that almost half of the school’s student population is international, its community held an important stake in the discussion, rightly reflected in the large number of enthused audience members that turned out for the event.

The discussion began with three important questions that have been raised by the executive order: one, was this the right policy decision; two, is it being implemented effectively; and three, what would be its impact on the community at large.

Mr. French articulated that while the policy is in itself a mere “baby-step” in the direction of a larger overhaul of US security policy, it has been effective in hitting the pause button at a time of escalating threat. He claimed that while the list of seven countries that have been included in the order is “defensible”, it should have included Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Russia. “It may not have been the right time to mess with the Iraqis, though” he added.

Other panelists were far more critical of the order. Juliette Kayyem clarified that regardless of how strict measures were enacted, they would fail to reduce the vulnerability of US citizens to zero. The primary source of threat, it would appear, is not international but domestic. Referring to the increasing number of self-radicalized people within the US, she said it was perhaps not that bad after all, for we have resources to deal with these people better than we can with radicalized individuals overseas. As a member of the Arab-American community, she further added that Muslim Americans were rightfully angry and concerned at an increasingly uncertain time.

While it remains to be seen exactly how this policy is rolled out in the coming days, Gil Kerlikowske took the opportunity to express concerns about what the likely scenario was going to be: a disorganized failure. He pointed out that the job of border protection agencies is not only to keep people safe, but to also welcome them to the country. One of those two is clearly not being accomplished by this order, he said.

Members from the audience got the opportunity to ask questions about what the order entailed and what it meant for the thousands of refugees stranded in Syria. A visiting student from Germany asked whether it was the right time to even prioritize security, and whether the reform sought to establish that every single American life is more valuable than thousands of Syrians’. This sentiment was echoed by Moshik Temkin when he expressed concern over the real motivations of the order. Pointing to the radically bigoted worldview of people now in government, he questioned whether the narrative of security was merely a façade for the real purpose of this policy. This, he claimed, was probably to signal to the world about the kind of people that were welcome here; and, perhaps more importantly, those who weren’t.

“It seems to me that the Muslims we are turning away are the ones in need. The reason we don’t ban Saudi citizens is because they contribute to our coffers,” Mr. Temkin said to thunderous applause.

Professor Burns ended the discussion by pointing out that security was not necessarily in line with ethics, for ways to make the US most secure can oftentimes deprive people of the chance to earn their livelihoods like millions of other immigrants have done previously. “Immigrants. We get the job done,” he said. He also announced that the university would continue to mount pressure against the executive order, for members of its own community stand to lose from its enactment. Meanwhile, the JFK Jr. Forum remains an active forum for discussions on the political environment, having hosted a discussion on Presidential Secrecy this Monday and with David Farhenthold, a Washington Post reporter, on Tuesday.

Fittingly, Harvard—along with seven other universities in Massachusetts—filed an amicus brief challenging the immigration ban on Friday.

Pulkit Agarwal (pulkitagarwal@college.harvard.edu) hopes to continue observing this debate unfold on campus in the coming weeks.