Even by Trump standards, the optics were bad. Six Afghan girls and their chaperone were denied entry to the United States—twice!—where they were scheduled to take part in the FIRST Robotics Challenge in Washington. Denying this team of teenagers the opportunity to participate in a robotics competition seemed indefensible, making them poster girls for the pointlessness and cruelty of the Trump administration’s stance toward international visitors.
But Wednesday night, those optics changed. “At the urging of President Donald Trump, U.S. officials have reversed course and decided to allow into the United States a group of Afghan girls,” Politico’s Nahal Toosi reported. Observers on Twitter begrudgingly gave Trump “credit where it’s due” for doing the right thing.
But Trump doesn’t deserve any credit here. He has intentionally and systematically made the American immigration system crueler. It’s not as if he heard the story of these Afghan girls and said to himself, Huh, maybe I was wrong about needing a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Instead, he deigned to help a small group of people affected by his inhumane policies. Praising him for granting passage to these girls is like giving someone a round of applause for draining the ocean and then pouring in a thimbleful of water.
We don’t know exactly why the girls’ applications were rejected—the State Department hasn’t released that information, citing privacy concerns—but it seems highly probable the rejection shouldn’t have happened in the first place. “One common reason Afghans are rejected for U.S. entry is the concern that they will overstay their visas and refuse to go back home,” Politico noted. So it’s possible that such a rejection could have happened under a previous administration. The Trump White House, however, has made it quite clear that it is not comfortable with Muslim visitors to the United States, even if the travel ban did not include Afghanistan specifically.
While only parts of the original ban are currently in effect, the president and his minions have damaged the United States’ reputation as a place that welcomes scientists, engineers, and technologists (and admittedly, pretty much everyone else in the world). In May, a coalition of academic and educational groups raised concerns about plans for “enhanced vetting,” writing in a letter to the State Department, “We are very concerned that if the proposed changes are implemented, international undergraduate and graduate students, scholars, and scientific collaborators may be discouraged from coming to the United States.” A March report said that 40 percent of colleges had seen declines in applications from international students.
Although media attention has been focused on the Afghan girls, the five-person team from Gambia ran into similar problems. The group was denied entry after an initial interview, but that changed after a second meeting at the U.S. embassy in Gambia. “It was very nice and sensible compared with the last [interview]. … The questions were related to the robotics. We had an interesting conversation and they were friendly,” a 17-year-old told Al-Jazeera. According to a press release from the FIRST Robotics Challenge, all teams have now been granted entry:
Teams under the Executive Order on travel such as Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and a team of Syrian refugees have all recently received their visas even after parts of the E.O. were reinstituted by the United States. These nations will be competing alongside other teams that have faced various challenges such as a team from Iraq, students from rural Honduras, and a team from Micronesia who had limited access to the internet.
While it is wonderful that the teams from Afghanistan and Gambia will make it in time for the competition—the FIRST Robotics Challenge begins July 16—the way this transpired still reeks. These teams are akin to the “deserving poor,” sympathetic people who are entitled to help because they are innocent and adorable. But what about everyone else who’s ensnared in Trump’s immigration net? By permitting the Afghan girls to compete—something that should have been an easy yes without all this hoopla—Trump gives himself an undeserved patina of reasonability: If someone should get in, I’ll make sure they can get in.
The reality is that Trump cares about the Afghan girls because their story was on TV. In December, Slate editor Julia Turner described Trump’s focus on saving a small number of jobs at a small number of firms as governing by gimmickry. This is the same phenomenon: helping a (sympathetic, sufficiently grateful) group rather than tackling a large-scale problem, particularly one of his own creation.
Since the robotics competition is in Washington, it’s possible the president will seek out a photo-op with the Afghan team as a further attempt to demonstrate his magnanimity. But Trump didn’t do this for the six Afghan girls. He did it to project an image of benevolence. That’s an image we should all be smart enough to see right through.