Did Jimmy Carter Ban Iranians from Entering the U.S.?

As right-wing bloggers and social media users tried to defend one of Donald Trump’s early attack on Muslims in December 2015, they misleadingly compared his rhetoric to a measure taken by Democrat Jimmy Carter during his presidency.

At the time the comparisons began, presidential candidate Trump, seizing on reports of a then-recent mass shooting attack in California, called for a “total and complete shutdown” on immigration by Muslims into the United States. As the Guardian reported:

Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Trump’s proposed ban would apply to “everybody,” including Muslims seeking immigration visas as well as tourists seeking to enter the country. Another Trump staffer confirmed that the ban would also apply to American Muslims who were currently overseas – presumably including members of the military and diplomatic service.

The right-wing blog Frontpage Mag then published a post minimizing Trump’s Islamophobic statements, claiming that Carter had implemented such a policy during his presidency.

The post has since been deleted, but at the time supporters of Trump (including future White House staffer Dan Scavino) circulated it online; the post’s subheadline read, “Trump is just like Hitler. Or Jimmy Carter,” while showing an edited photograph that appeared to show Carter “wearing” a Nazi uniform:

Portions of the post, which linger online years later, read in part:

Trump is a monster, a madman and a vile racist. He’s just like Hitler. Or Jimmy Carter.

During the Iranian hostage crisis, Carter issued a number of orders to put pressure on Iran. Among these, Iranians were banned from entering the United States unless they oppose the Shiite Islamist regime or had a medical emergency.

The argument seizes on a chain of events that began in November 1979. As the New York Times reported, Carter ordered then-Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti to “examine the credentials” of more than 50,000 Iranians using student visas in the U.S. after the American embassy in Iran was occupied by an Islamic group loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeni, holding diplomats working there hostage for 444 days. According to the newspaper:

On Nov. 13, Mr. Civiletti ordered all Iranians in this country on student visas to report to immigration officials by Dec. 24. He said that those who did not report would be subject to deportation. The deadline has been extended to Dec. 31.

That December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned a lower court’s finding that the order was unconstitutional.

As journalist Marco Brunner reported in a 2018 retrospective of the order’s effects, immigration officials met with 54,486 Iranians and determined that 45,678 — almost 84 percent — were “found to be in compliance” with the terms of their visas.

According to Brunner, 90 percent of the people interviewed were students, who increasingly found themselves targeted within their college communities:

Universities all across the country became inhospitable and even hostile to the Iranian students and academics. For some students, walking on the campus was like running the gauntlet. As Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, remembers, there were undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania chanting, “Nuke Iran, maim Iranians!” Many Iranian students tried to hide their nationality in order to avoid being mistreated on campus, referring to themselves as Persians as a way to distance themselves from the Khomeini regime, while enduring puerile taunts such as “Ayatollah ass-a-hole-ah.”

But per archived data from the Department of Homeland Security, immigration to the U.S. from Iran actually increased amid Carter’s order; in 1979, 8,476 new Iranian emigres were allowed into the country, compared to 10,410 the following year:

Further, Iranian immigration into the U.S. continued apace after the resolution of the hostage crisis in 1981. According to a report from the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA):

Between October 1981 and February 1985, more Iranians were granted asylum — 11,055 in total — than any other nationality. Thousands of other Iranians, however, remained in the United States illegally, working odd jobs, living with relatives and family, and making every effort to pass detection by INS agents and deportation back to Iran.

The group further reported that 116,172 Iranians emigrated to the U.S. between 1981 and 1990, many of them looking to avoid being drafted into the war between Iran and Iraq, which raged from 1981 to 1988.

While Carter’s order focused on a particular nation, Trump’s call for a “shutdown,” which led to him issuing Executive Order 13769 in January 2017 — a month after being elected U.S. president — targeted the Muslim religion as a whole.

Current U.S. President Joe Biden — a Democrat who decisively beat Trump in the November 2020 elections, despite years of weaponized lies to the contrary — reversed the policy after taking office in January 2021, saying that it “jeopardized our global network of alliances and partnerships,” and added that it was a “moral blight that has dulled the power of our example the world over. And they have separated loved ones, inflicting pain that will ripple for years to come. They are just plain wrong.”

Update 11/16/2022, 3:56 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag