Fact Check

Did President Obama Ban Muslims from Entering the United States in 2011?

Comparisons between a 2011 Obama administration slowdown on processing Iraqi visas and President Trump's stay on immigration from seven countries are inaccurate.

Published Jan. 31, 2017

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President Obama banned immigration from Iraq for six months in 2011, but the media buried the story.
What's True

In 2011 the State Department's issuance of SIVs to Iraqi applicants slowed after two individuals in Kentucky were identified as having possibly been improperly screened; multiple national news outlets reported on the State Department visa processing slowdown while it was occurring and in subsequent years.

What's False

Neither President Obama nor the State Department banned or stopped those applications entirely; the slowdown affected a single type of visa from a single country (and not all entry from several countries); the slowdown occurred in order to implement enhanced screening procedures, which remained in place in January 2017.

On 28 January 2017, protests erupted at airports across the United States over President Donald Trump's issuance of a executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven countries. In a 29 January 2017 statement, he said:

America is a proud nation of immigrants and we will continue to show compassion to those fleeing oppression, but we will do so while protecting our own citizens and border. America has always been the land of the free and home of the brave. We will keep it free and keep it safe, as the media knows, but refuses to say. 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. To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion - this is about terror and keeping our country safe.

Supporters of the ban claimed that no such protests had occurred when President Obama purportedly banned visas for refugees in 2011:

Protests erupted at JFK’s terminal 4 on [28 January 2017] after incoming refugees were detained by customs and border patrol agents following Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees from 7 Muslim countries.

Of course, back in 2011 when Barack Obama banned Iraqi refugees for six months the far left said nothing!

However, on 24 July 2011 the New York Times reported a slowdown (but not a ban) on visas for Iraqis:

The Obama administration has required new background checks for visa applicants, reacting to a case in Kentucky in which two Iraqi immigrants were arrested on suspicion of ties to an insurgent group, according to American officials in Baghdad.

Advocates say that the administration is ignoring a directive from Congress to draft a contingency plan to expedite visas should those Iraqis who worked for the United States government, especially interpreters for the military, come under increased threat after American forces are drawn down at the end of the year.

A 20 November 2013 ABC News piece reported that as a result of the Kentucky case, the State Department stopped processing Iraqi refugees for six months. There was some pushback; according to reports, the Obama administration tweaked the special immigrant visa process as a result (but would not divulge what changes they had made).

By contrast, President Trump's 27 January 2017 executive order called for a temporary ban on entry from seven nations that are purportedly detrimental to the interests of the United States, but with no supporting evidence cited:

To temporarily reduce investigative burdens on relevant agencies during the review period described in subsection (a) of this section, to ensure the proper review and maximum utilization of available resources for the screening of foreign nationals, and to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals, pursuant to section 212(f) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1182(f), I hereby proclaim that the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons for 90 days from the date of this order (excluding those foreign nationals traveling on diplomatic visas, North Atlantic Treaty Organization visas, C-2 visas for travel to the United Nations, and G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4 visas).

The 2011 State Department slowdown on processing asylum requests from Iraq was covered in great depth by news organizations, most frequently from a perspective critical of President Obama's federal government leaving American assets in Iraq unprotected as nearly 60,000 applications were reviewed more extensively:

Several thousand Iraqis, including many who helped the United States during the Iraq war, are caught in a grim race between death threats in their own country and the cumbersome process of obtaining a visa ... Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, said 5,000 visas have been set aside each year since 2008 to expedite those Iraqis’ entry into the United States. As of Sept. 30, the U.S. government should have given out 20,000 of these special visas, she said, but only 3,317 have been issued.

“What you have is a slowdown to a crawl for these visas,” said Trudy Rubin, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer who has closely followed the Iraqi visa issue. “People have been waiting for a year or more, and have not been given a timeframe for when they will be cleared.”

In 2015, the Wall Street Journal followed up with an article about a lawsuit filed on behalf of applicants who claimed their lives were put at risk during the 2011 delays. Following President Trump's 29 January 2017 statement comparing his order to President Obama's, Foreign Policy reported that the ban differed on five material points:

1. Much narrower focus: The [2011 Iraqi "ban"] applied to citizens of a single country (Iraq) and then only to refugees and applicants for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), created by Congress to help Iraqis (and later Afghans) who supported the United States in those conflicts. The Trump executive order, on the other hand, applies to seven countries with total population more than 130 million, and to virtually every category of immigrant other than diplomats, including tourists and business travelers.

2. Not a ban: Contrary to Trump’s Sunday statement and the repeated claims of his defenders, the Obama administration did not “ban visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.” For one thing, refugees don’t travel on visas. More importantly, 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 ... there was no outright ban.

3. Grounded in specific threat: The Obama administration’s 2011 review came in response to specific threat information, including the arrest in Kentucky of two Iraqi refugees ... the Trump administration has provided no evidence, nor even asserted, that any specific information or intelligence has led to its draconian order.

4. Orderly, organized process: The Obama administration’s review was conducted over roughly a dozen deputies and principals committee meetings, involving Cabinet and deputy Cabinet-level officials from all of the relevant departments and agencies — including the State, Homeland Security and Justice Departments — and the intelligence community. The Trump executive order was reportedly drafted by White House political officials and then presented to the implementing agencies a fait accompli[.]

5. Far stronger vetting today: Much has been made of Trump’s call for “extreme vetting” for citizens of certain countries. The entire purpose of the Obama administration’s 2011 review was to enhance the already stringent vetting to which refugees and SIV applicants were subjected. While many of the details are classified, those rigorous procedures, which lead to waiting times of 18-24 months for many Iraqi and Syrian refugees, remain in place today and are continually reviewed by interagency officials[.]

Although it is true that the State Department's enhanced review of applications from Iraq in 2011 slowed their processing time significantly, President Barack Obama did not ban or completely stop all entry from one (or seven) countries.


Arango, Tim.   "Visa Delays Put Iraqis Who Aided U.S. In Fear."     New York Times.   12 July 2011.

Bennett, Brian.   "Iraqi Refugees In U.S. Rechecked For Terrorism Links."     Los Angeles Times.   18 July 2011.

Epatko, Larisa.   "Iraqis Face Backlog Of U.S. Visas Due To New Security Checks."     PBS NewsHour.   21 December 2011.

Finer, Jon.   "Sorry, Mr. President: The Obama Administration Did Nothing Similar to Your Immigration Ban."     Foreign Policy.   30 January 2017.

Jordan, Miriam.   "U.S. Sued By Its Iraqi Helpers Over Visa Delays."     Wall Street Journal.   10 March 2015.

Kessler, Glenn.   "Trump’s Facile Claim That His Refugee Policy Is Similar To Obama’s In 2011."     Washington Post.   29 January 2017.

Meek, James Gordon, Cindy Galli and Brian Ross.   "Exclusive: US May Have Let 'Dozens' Of Terrorists Into Country As Refugees."     ABC News.   20 November 2013.

Qui, Linda.   "Why Comparing Trump's And Obama's Immigration Restrictions Is Flawed."     PolitiFact.   30 January 2017.

The White House Office Of The Press Secretary.   "Executive Order: Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States."     27 January 2017.

The White House Office Of The Press Secretary.   "President Donald J. Trump Statement Regarding Recent Executive Order Concerning Extreme Vetting."     29 January 2017.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.