Getting Past the Bad Math of the #MuslimBan


As someone who studies global migration for a living, it has been hard to choose where to begin when it comes to denouncing Donald Trump’s Executive Order on immigration and refugees.  Where to start?  There is, of course, the Order’s bedrock of Islamophobia: Trump has ignorantly conflated Islam with terrorism. And then there’s the constitutional angle: the Order violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, among other things.  Or we could counter with the fact that more than 50 years ago, Congress outlawed national origins bans with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Or the statistical “probabilities” generated by think tanks: The CATO Institute says that your chance of being harmed on U.S. soil by a refugee is one in 3.64 billion.[1]

But let’s start with the raw numbers. Between social media feeds and the mainstream press, there is a dizzying quantity of numbers and calculations appearing at breakneck pace.  These ciphers are all supposed to help us better understand the “impact” of the Executive Order (EO). Trump himself began defensively wielding numbers in response to the massive protestation that followed the EO.  “Only 109 people” were detained and held within the first twenty-four hours, he proclaimed to the Twittersphere on January 30th.  “Remember we’re talking about a universe of 109 people,” affirmed White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in a briefing on that same day.  In response, the mainstream media were quick to the draw.  Analysts and journalists decried the funny numbers being cited, the dubious math.

By that night, the Washington Post’s ‘Fact Checker’ column (among others) was on the case. They astutely pointed out that the “109” figure was inaccurate and deliberately misleading. After all, the Department of Homeland Security had already logged hundreds of cases of people who were denied boarding their plans at the port of departure. As of February 1, the number had soared past 900 denials of embarkation. The “109” figure conveniently ignored anyone from this category.  The “real” number of people “affected by Trump’s travel ban” was closer to 90,000 or 100,000, according to numerous media outlets.[2] In many cases, this fact-checking was likely done in good faith – but it is built on a faulty assumption.

These types of statistics all presume the unquestionable ability of lawmakers or analysts to quantify “impact” when it comes to immigration legislation. Perhaps this presumption signals our confidence in the surveillance state. Or perhaps, in a time of overwhelming confusion, numbers seem like a concrete thing to grasp ahold of.  After all, at least one historian has deemed the political theater of the EO a classic “shock event”[3].  But here is the crux of the issue: We cannot simply tally the number of visas issued to the seven countries included in the EO’s ban and expect that to render a reliable picture of the number of people “affected” by the #MuslimBan.

Succinct tallies of “impacted” migrants are inherently misleading to the public – whether that number is 109 or 100,000.  Simply put, experts in the field of Migration Studies have shown over and over again that immigrants do not move in a vacuum. Each migrant is part of an intricate, interconnected web of family, community, and resources. Migrants do not move in a closed system, they circulate in transnational networks. If the path of one migrant is disrupted, this has a ripple effect on the livelihood and path of other people related to them by their network.  Family members, colleagues, friends, financial dependents – all of these groups figure into the networks of moving bodies.

In the case of the Middle Eastern and North African countries targeted by the #MuslimBan, there is a long history of networks.  These are constituted by the flow of people, resources, and cultures that bind the livelihoods of migrants, to homelands, to diaspora communities. In the case of Syria, approximately one fifth of its population emigrated from the late-19th century up to World War I. Most of those people came to the Americas and participated in homeland politics and economies from abroad.  They simultaneously integrated into their host societies and form an important part of American cultural heritage. In this way, around half a million Syrians began to form networks of philanthropy, chain migration, and cultural production in the diaspora.

Nothing racist to see here... unless you read the excellent work of the historian Mae Ngai
Nothing racist to see here… unless you read the excellent work of the historian Mae Ngai

The story of restrictive immigration policies targeting Muslim-majority countries is not a new one. The principle hubs of the Syrian diaspora in the Americas – the United States, Argentina, and Brazil – all experimented with strategies for impeding Syrian entry. In the U.S., this culminated with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which instituted the national origins quota system.  (This was one moment in a longer arc of exclusion-based policy in the United States, which we can trace back to Chester Arthur’s 1882 signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act). The 1924 Act allotted 100 entries for Syrians.  Countless newspaper stories from the Syrian immigrant press of the early 20th century make clear the human consequences of these regimes of restriction.

Any immigration setback experienced by one member of the community had a ripple effect. Both official and extralegal efforts to bar Syrian migration to the Americas broke apart families, caused emotional distress, and adversely impacted local economies. Today, the same domino effect is already in motion from Trump’s EO. Since the 1920s, the nativist sentiment that quota systems tacitly promoted resulted in violence against Syrian migrants and their communities.  From New York, to Mississippi, to Rio de Janeiro, to Buenos Aires, to Patagonia, Syrians who had never attempted a border crossing in their lifetime nevertheless suffered the fallout.  This pattern repeats itself in the wake of exclusionist policy decisions like the EO.

Consider these examples of the lived impact of the EO, collected by the mayor and university chancellor of a college town in California: A former J-1 scholar from Iran who was recently hired as a new faculty member, is now unsure if his wife and son will have their visas processed.  An Iranian graduate student suddenly found himself in a financial bind, when it became clear that his roommate may be stuck in Iran indefinitely.  An Iranian F-2 Visa spouse of an F-1 Visa student may be prevented to changing to an F-1 visa in order to become a student herself.  She has already been accepted to the university. The children of another F-1 student in California are without their mother, who is stuck outside the U.S. A grandfather just had his visa interview canceled. His son is an F-1 Visa Ph.D. student with small children, who have not seen their grandfather in five years.  All of these examples (and many more) were collected from a single university, within only five hours of Trump signing the EO.[4] The “official numbers” recognize none of these people.

The Islamophobia that undergirds the EO and much of the Right’s national security rhetoric has the same dangerous consequence for migrants and their networks. And this is where the statistics fail us. To claim that we can measure the “number of people affected” by summing up the number of people detained in, or denied passage to, DTW, JFK, IAD, or other airports since January 27th is absurd in this light.  It ignores the multiple forms of collateral damage that this EO threatens (indeed has already provoked) in myriad migrant/refugee networks and communities.

Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway dismissed the ban’s consequences as a “temporary and mild inconvenience,” and a “small price to pay” on the road to America First.[5] However, the growing body of migration studies scholarship demonstrates, incontrovertibly, that the consequences of this ban will be anything but “temporary” or “small”.  If we are to truly attempt an assessment of the long-ranging impact of the EO, our first step must be to admit that we simply cannot reduce its effects to a neat pile of data.

Human movement, global migration, is a messy story at the end of the day. It is one that embodies the impossibility of numbers. Math falls short of calculating the human experience – especially since humans are moving, networking entities by their very nature. So, why do we keep trying to quantify the fallout of the EO?  Because it feels useful. Or maybe because knowing that something is potentially incalculable is even scarier.  At the very least, it is much stickier to explain to a political constituency—much less tweet in 140 characters or less.

In the EO, Trump cites this ban as an action to prevent “immeasurable harm to the American people and the very fabric of our Republic.”[6]  He knows well that threatening the “immeasurability” of abstract harm is one of his best scare tactics.  What we need to start realizing is something that many generations of migrants already know: the impact of restrictive immigration crackdowns is also immeasurably detrimental—to people, communities, institutions, and national economies. It has always been thus, and thus it will continue to be—at a scale that we cannot easily quantify.

Trump’s very own notion—that of “immeasurable harm… to the fabric of our Republic” as stated in the EO—could very well be self-actualizing if the EO is not overturned. After all, the “fabric of our Republic” is the story of immigrants who made their way to our shores, and who continue to do so today. And this is a fabric that we must preserve at all costs.

Lily Balloffet is an Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University, and is a scholar of global migration.  Her research explores immigrant networks in the Global South, especially between Latin America and the Middle East.  She is also the co-editor of Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East & North African Migration Studies.


[1] Alex Nowrasteh, “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis,” CATO Institute Policy Analysis, September 13 2016 (

[2] Glenn Kessler, “The number of people affected by Trump’s travel ban: About 90,000” The Washington Post, January 30 2017 (; Shannon Ho & Alexandra Villarreal, “How Many People are Affected by Trump’s Travel Ban?” NBC New York, February 1 2017 (

[3] Historian Heather Cox Richardson called it a “Shock Event” in a Facebook post that went viral the day after the EO.  Yvonne Abraham, “Our Chance to Write History” The Boston Globe, February 4 2017 (

[4] Mayor Robb Davis and Interim Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter.  Open Letter to Representative John Garamendi. January 31 2017.

[5] CNN Newsroom Transcripts, January 30th, 2017.

[6] Executive Order: “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” January 25, 2017. White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Sec. 1.