On Inauguration Day, President Biden rescinded a policy widely known as the “Muslim ban” — a Trump administration-imposed ban on allowing people from seven Muslim-majority countries to travel to the United States. Biden has called the policy “morally wrong” and “designed to target primarily Black and Brown immigrants.” Polls show that U.S. public opinion is on his side. That’s a shift from polls conducted in January 2017, which suggested that roughly half of Americans initially supported the ban.
What changed these attitudes? Our research suggests that Americans may have turned against the ban only days after it was enacted, mainly because of the news media’s critical coverage. And that rapid shift has lasted — because many were persuaded that the ban was “un-American.”
About the ‘Muslim ban’
On Jan. 27, 2017, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump fulfilled one of his key campaign promises by signing Executive Order (EO) 13769 into law, barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days, with Syrian refugees barred indefinitely. Later, the Trump administration would bar North Koreans and certain Venezuelan government officials from entering the country as well. Analysis of data from the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs suggests that the United States did not in fact reduce the number of visas issued to North Koreans or Venezuelans, although it did all but eliminate such visas for the citizens of Muslim-majority countries.
At the time, tens of thousands of protesters rallied in airports and cities across the country, opposing what quickly became known as the “Muslim ban.” The state of Hawaii challenged its legality in court; Trump v. Hawaii made its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the ban in 2018. In a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “Our Founders honored that core promise by embedding the principle of religious neutrality in the First Amendment. … Based on the evidence in the record, a reasonable observer would conclude that the Proclamation was motivated by anti-Muslim animus.”
Here’s how we did our research
To assess the effect of the “Muslim ban” on public opinion, we conducted two studies.
The first study used a two-wave panel study of 423 individuals that we conducted online with a convenience sample on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, before and after the ban was announced. While this sample is not representative of the U.S. population, this approach enables us to observe opinion change among the same individuals and to note who shifted toward and against the ban and why.
Respondents turned against the ban just days after it was announced
We found that opinions toward such a ban, which presidential candidate Donald Trump had promised during his campaign, were fairly split before it was announced. However, when we re-interviewed the same survey respondents a few days after the announcement and ensuing protests, a clear majority said they opposed the ban, moving about 10 percentage points against the ban.
Why? We found that individuals who consider being an American an important part of their identity were the ones who had a change of heart. Our research suggests that their attitudes probably changed because demonstrators, media commentators and political leaders argued that the ban was “un-American.” That is, this group of respondents were persuaded that a “Muslim ban” was at odds with cherished American values of religious liberty and equality.
But did opinions shift back?
Our second study tests whether these initial shifts against the ban endured. We first evaluated news coverage of the “Muslim ban” to see whether the issue had disappeared from the national spotlight and whether coverage and discussion remained critical for the next year.
Legacy of the ‘Muslim ban’
Since first enacted in 2017, the “Muslim ban” has affected many American families, barring thousands of people, including children and spouses of U.S. citizens, because of their country of origin. As one Syrian American put it, “this ban prevents me from being reunited with them in my home, the United States of America, where I was born and raised, proudly, as an American.”
Department of Homeland Security data shows that the ban severely reduced the number of refugee admissions into the United States, particularly from the targeted countries. For example, the number of Iraqi refugees decreased dramatically from 6,886 to 465 from 2017 to 2019. Meanwhile, the number of refugees from Ukraine slightly increased from 4,264 to 4,451.
Our research suggests that public opinion turned firmly against the ban from the moment thousands of protesters made headlines by chanting, “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.”