White House Defends Immigrant Ban After Travelers Stopped

  • Arab rights group says some green-card holders being stopped
  • Administration plans to give priority to Syrian Christians

President Donald Trump defended his order suspending refugee resettlements in the U.S. and barring entry to people from from Iraq, Syria and five other Middle East nations, as confusion broke out at airports around the world and government agencies and airlines tried to interpret the new rules.

"It’s not a Muslim ban,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “We were totally prepared. It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over. It’s working out very nicely."

The executive order, aimed at stopping would-be terrorists from entering the U.S., led to people being detained at airports from Dallas to Atlanta to New York, and provoked an outcry from immigration lawyers, who said it violated the U.S. Constitution. Airlines around the world, given no advance warning, blocked travelers from the affected countries -- including some who are legal U.S. residents -- from getting on planes to the U.S. and struggled to understand what they should do.

At least a dozen people were being held at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, including 10 Iranians, Andre Segura, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview. Officials there agreed to release Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an interpreter who had worked for the U.S. military in Iraq, after he was detained. Another Iraqi was also released.

The order impacted immigrants from Muslim-majority countries Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. A senior White House official, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said the administration had serious concerns about abuses in immigration programs and needed to impose the 90-day ban on immigrants from the seven countries while it comes up with new vetting procedures.

The order also halts refugee resettlement to the U.S. for 120 days, and orders that refugee admissions for 2017 be cut to 50,000 from the planned limit of 110,000.

The official said reports of individuals stranded at airports or uncertain about their travel plans paled in comparison to the possibility that a terrorist or someone with terrorist sympathies could enter the U.S.

The outcry from overseas leaders was also swift. In a phone call with Trump today, French President Francois Hollande said defending democracy “requires observing fundamental principles,” among them welcoming refugees, according to a statement from Hollande’s office.

On Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif promised reciprocal measures, though he said anyone with a valid visa would be welcomed “unlike the U.S.”

The U.S. move “will be recorded in history as a great gift to extremists and their supporters,” Zarif wrote on Twitter. “Collective discrimination aids terrorist recruitment by deepening fault-lines exploited by extremist demagogues to swell their ranks.”

Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said on a conference call that Trump’s move was causing “chaos within the community and at our borders.” Along with the ACLU and others, his group filed a lawsuit in federal court in Brooklyn claiming that the order is unconstitutional and exceeds
presidential authority under immigration law. It asks the court to block enforcement.

“This is a Muslim ban. It has nothing to do with national security. It has everything to do with Islamophobia and xenophobia,” Ayoub said. He said people from the countries in question were being told not to leave the U.S. because they wouldn’t be allowed back in.

As Saturday went on, new details emerged about the extent of the order’s reach. A State Department official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified, said the order applied not only to citizens of the seven countries but also to dual nationals who aren’t U.S. citizens. The official said visa interviews won’t be scheduled for nationals of the countries during the 90-day ban.

Green-card holders -- legal permanent residents -- from the seven nations were also barred. Ayoub said people had been detained at airports in Atlanta, Houston, Detroit and Washington, as well as New York.

Exemptions Possible

A second senior administration official said it was “ludicrous” to describe the extreme vetting order as a Muslim ban, noting that countries like Afghanistan were excluded from the list of countries from which immigration was blocked. The first noted that the U.S. admitted more Muslims to visit or immigrate than any country in the world not in the region, and would continue to do so.

Those already outside the country can apply for a case-by-case exemption, the White House said, pledging they would be expeditiously processed. Green-card holders from the affected countries already in the U.S. can seek a waiver before they travel abroad. 

The official acknowledged the priority the plan gives to Christians. Language in the order demands that when refugee admissions are allowed again, priority must be given to claims of persecution based on religions that are in the minority in the country. The seven targeted by the order are all predominantly Muslim.

Speaking with Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday in an interview that will air in full on Sunday night, Trump suggested that Christians had been treated unfairly by U.S. procedures.

“If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair -- everybody was persecuted, in all fairness -- but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians,” Trump said. “And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.”

Google Response

Alphabet Inc.’s Google said more than 100 employees who were out of the country on vacation or work assignments are subject to the order. A spokeswoman declined to say Saturday whether any of them had been denied boarding on flights or detained in the U.S. One employee rushed back from a trip to New Zealand to make it into the U.S. before the order was signed, Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai wrote in a memo to employees.

“It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues,” Pichai wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News. “We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so.”

The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. sent a memo to employees advising them of the travel ban and outlining who may be affected. The memo from the consulting firm’s assistant general counsel said in part:

“To be safe, we are advising for now that all who are not U.S. citizens and who were born in one of these countries not depart the U.S. as you may not be able to get back in for at
least another 90 days. For those who are currently outside of the U.S. -- we urge you to try to return immediately as you may not be readmitted.”

Officials from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security were preparing guidance Saturday to help airlines and other travel companies better guide their clients, the White House said. That information wasn’t provided ahead of time because the administration didn’t want information about the action to leak, which, they said, could have allowed a potential terrorist to circumvent the new rules.

Criticism of Trump’s executive order emerged from both the left and the right. Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration-policy analyst at the conservative Cato Institute, wrote a post before the order was signed saying that foreigners from the seven nations affected by the ban had “killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015.”

“The measures taken here will have virtually no effect on improving U.S. national security,” he wrote.

Democrats in Congress roundly criticized the order, while Republican response was more muted. Senator Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate, said Trump had “defied everything our nation stands for.” Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska called the order “too broad.”

“If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion,” he said in a statement.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the title of Francois Hollande.)

(Updates with letter from Google’s Pichai in 21st paragraph.)
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