There is only one story in the news right now, and that is the “travel ban”. President Trump has done that extraordinary thing: he has united the newspapers and broadcasters of the world against him. Quite an achievement! Will he be bothered? I very much doubt it. In fact the more the protests continue, the more the people who voted for President Trump in the first place will feel vindicated.
President Trump, a very rich man from New York, got to where he is today by posing as the champion of the underdog, in particularly the white working class in America’s Rust Belt. It was those states, let us remember, that won him the presidency, thanks to the way the electoral college works. The scale of the protests on behalf of those who are now banned from entering the United States will not impress the people of Pennsylvania, Michigan or Ohio. When their jobs were disappearing, when their factories were closing, who protested then? These protests will merely serve to underline the appeal of ‘America First’: people will protest on behalf of the rights of non-Americans, but will they lift a finger for their fellow citizens in the flyover states? Not they!
The “travel ban” is a win-win situation for Trump. He has given his voters what they asked for – even though this is not the “Muslim ban” promised, the protesters seem to regard it as such – and he has once again reinforced the idea that he stands up for the overlooked people of America, unlike, for example, Senator Elizabeth Warren. Thanks to the vociferousness of these protests he may never have to implement the notorious and probably unfeasible ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
It is of course impossible for liberal Americans not to protest over this; or indeed for a British Conservative government not to express its reservations. Mr Trump knows this perfectly well. He is an expert at goading his opponents into doing exactly the wrong thing. But this matter is the wrong issue for protest. For the truth of the matter is that people from Yemen and Libya and the other countries banned from entering have no entitlement to enter in the first place. One enters America not be right but by indulgence; that is to say the American government lets you in; and if they give permission for you to enter, they can also withdraw that permission.
It used to be quite tedious for a British passport-holder to get an American visa, but we all did it, if we wanted to visit America badly enough. They made the rules, and we had to comply. Visas and immigration formalities can be very time consuming. I myself have experience of getting visas for Lebanon, Syria, Uganda, and Kenya, as well as residence permits in Kenya and Italy. As a child my family was resident in Malta, and we knew we were guests of the Maltese people, and our residency could be revoked. But those were the rules. We did not make them, but we had to live by them. In short, in all these countries I have travelled to, or lived in, I knew that I had no sense of entitlement.
It has always been the case that nations have made their own rules with regard to immigration. Sixteen countries round the world refuse to admit anyone travelling on an Israeli passport. That is something that most, perhaps all of us, would deplore, but we have no way of compelling these countries to admit Israeli-passport holders; these countries are exercising their sovereign rights.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who want all travel restrictions lifted. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Travel restrictions are relatively new. In the era of mass migration at the end of the 19th century, when millions entered the United States, they did so without passports. The same was true for Britain. Passports only arrived with the coming of the First World War. And here we have the rub. The current “travel ban” is ultimately a response to the fears aroused by terrorism. We will perhaps have the right to travel without let or hindrance, without visas or passports, only when we have a world utterly at peace. Until then, we had better get used to restrictions, of which the Trump “travel ban” is only the latest.