WASHINGTON U.S. President Donald Trump fought back on Sunday amid growing international criticism, outrage from civil rights activists and legal challenges over his abrupt order for a halt on arrivals of refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
He and senior aides sought to defend the policy and play down the chaos sparked by Friday’s order. But confusion persisted over details of implementation, in particular for green card holders who are legal residents of the United States.
In his most sweeping action since taking office on Jan. 20, Trump, a Republican, put a 120-day hold on allowing refugees into the country, an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria and a 90-day bar on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world – a horrible mess!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!” added Trump, who has presented the policy as a way to protect Americans from the threat of Islamist militants.
Trump’s comment could fuel charges that the new policy singles out Muslims. The militant Islamic State group has targeted minorities with brutal attacks and systematic oppression in Syria and Iraq, but it has also killed, tortured and punished both Shiite and Sunni Muslims in areas under its rule.
In an indication that the policy is evolving on the fly, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” that the order “doesn’t affect green card holders moving forward.” However, he added that such people would be subjected to extra questioning by Customs and Border Patrol agents when they tried to re-enter the United States.
A senior administration official said green card holders will be subject to a rescreening but it had not been determined where and how those screenings would be carried out. Specific guidelines were being put together, the official said, adding “they could be screened in many different ways and in many different places.”
Civil rights and faith groups, activists and Democratic politicians have promised to fight Trump’s order, which caused anguish for affected travelers and sparked protests at several U.S. airports throughout Saturday.
Chuck Schumer, the senior Democrat in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, said on Sunday his party would introduce legislation to overturn the policy.
Schumer said he spoke with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to express his concerns about the order and Kelly had told him that the executive order would not affect legal permanent residents.
“We need clarification. But it shows you, above the bad nature, the horrible nature of these (orders), the incompetence of this administration,” Schumer told a news conference.
Several senior Republicans also voiced concern.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week” program, that it was a good idea to tighten the vetting of immigrants, but “it’s important to remember that some of our best sources in the war against radical Islamic terrorism, are Muslims, both in this country and overseas … We need to be careful as we do this.”
A Republican colleague in the Senate, John McCain, was more critical, saying the order had been a confused process and could give Islamic State propaganda material.
“It wasn’t chaos,” Priebus told NBC. He added that of 325,000 people who arrived from foreign countries on Saturday, 109 people were detained for further questioning, and most of them were moved out, with just a “couple dozen more that remain” detained.
Such travelers were spared the threat of deportation by a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, who granted a temporary reprieve late on Saturday evening. The American Civil Liberties Union, representing two Iraqis caught by the order as they flew into the country, successfully argued for a temporary stay that prevented travelers denied entry to the United States from being deported.
Federal judges in three states followed the one in New York in barring authorities from deporting affected travelers in orders issued late on Saturday or early on Sunday.
Separately, Democratic attorneys general from California and New York were among states discussing whether to legally challenge the order, according to officials.
Condemnation of the order poured in from abroad, including from traditional allies of the United States.
In Germany – which has taken in large numbers of people fleeing the Syrian civil war – Chancellor Angela Merkel said the global fight against terrorism was no excuse for the measures and “does not justify putting people of a specific background or faith under general suspicion”, her spokesman said on Sunday.
Trump, a businessman who successfully tapped into American fears about attacks by Islamist militants during his campaign, had promised what he called “extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees from areas the White House said the U.S. Congress deemed to be high risk.
He told reporters on Saturday that his order was “not a Muslim ban,” adding the measures were long overdue and were working out “very nicely.”
The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement late on Saturday that about 375 travelers had been affected by the order, 109 of whom were in transit and were denied entry to the United States. Another 173 were stopped by airlines before boarding. The department said it would comply with judicial orders but that the immigration restrictions remained in effect
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration was working to make sure its allies understood the purpose of the order, which affects Iraq, whose citizens and military work side by side with U.S. forces against Islamic State.
“We shouldn’t let people just re-enter the country who are not citizens of the United States because they have gone to a place we have concerns about,” he told ABC.
The new rules blindsided people in transit and families waiting for them, and caused havoc for businesses with employees holding passports from the targeted nations and colleges with international students.
Some leaders from the U.S. technology industry, a major employer of foreign workers, issued warnings to their staff and called the order immoral and un-American.
‘TREATED LIKE DRUG DEALERS’
The new rules upended plans that had been long in the making for some people, such as Iraqi Fuad Sharef and his family. They waited two years for a visa to settle in the United States, selling their home and quitting jobs and schools in Iraq before setting off on Saturday for a new life they saw as a reward for working with U.S. organizations.
Sharef, his wife and three children were prevented from boarding their connecting flight to New York from Cairo on Saturday, detained overnight at Cairo airport and forced to board a flight back to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil on Sunday morning.
“We were treated like drug dealers, escorted by deportation officers,” Sharef told Reuters by telephone from Cairo airport.
Iraq’s former ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, said Trump’s ban was unfair to a country that itself has been a victim of attacks, and could backfire.
Iran vowed to retaliate. Sudan called the action “very unfortunate” after Washington lifted sanctions on the country just weeks ago for cooperation on combating terrorism. A Yemeni official expressed dismay at the ban.
Britain’s most successful track athlete, Olympic champion Mo Farah, slammed the policy in a statement.
“On 1st January this year, Her Majesty the Queen made me a Knight of the Realm. On 27th January, President Donald Trump seems to have made me an alien,” said Farah, who was born in Somalia, came to Britain as a child and who currently lives with his wife and children in Oregon.
Immigration and customs officials at U.S. airports struggled to interpret the new rules on Saturday. Some green card holders who were in the air when the order was issued were detained at airports upon arrival.
Airlines were caught by surprise and some cabin crew were barred from entering the country. Emirates, the world’s largest long-haul airline, has had to change flight attendant and pilot rosters on services to the United States because of the ban, an airline spokeswoman said Sunday.
Thousands of refugees seeking entry were thrown into limbo.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell, Steve Holland, Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Dan Levine in San Francisco; Mica Rosenberg, Jonathan Allen, Melissa Fares, Daniel Trotta and David Ingram in New York; Andrea Hopkins, Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Andrea Shalal and Andreas Rilke in Berlin, Paul Sandle in London; Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Arwa Gaballa, Eric Knecht in Cairo, and Michael Georgy in Erbil; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Mary Milliken)