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 defended the policy and one administration official said Friday’s order could be expanded to include more countries, even as border and customs officials struggled to put it into practice. 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.
In a Twitter message on Sunday, Trump said the country needed “strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW.”
“Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!” added Trump, who successfully tapped Americans’ fear of attacks during his election campaign and has presented the policy as a way to protect the country from the threat of Islamist militants.
His comment could fuel charges that the new policy singles out Muslims as it did not take into account the fact that the militant Islamic State group has targeted not just minorities in Syria and Iraq, but both Shiite and Sunni Muslims in areas under its rule.
Protests erupted for a second day in several U.S. cities and airports.
“I think banning refugees, banning immigrants, banning religions like Islam or any other religion, is un-American,” said Will Turner, 42, draped in a U.S. flag and among a crowd of several thousand people in front of the White House chanting “no hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.”
Critics at home and abroad slammed Trump‘s order as a slap to America’s spirit, potentially counter-productive in fighting militant Islamism and confused in its execution.
The policy appeared to be evolving on the fly.
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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.”
Chuck Schumer, the senior Democrat in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, seized on the mixed messages from the administration.
Schumer said he had spoken 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.
Civil rights and faith groups, activists and Democratic politicians have promised to fight Trump‘s order and Schumer said his party would introduce legislation to overturn it.
Republicans control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but several senior Republicans voiced concern.
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a statement that “we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.”
Priebus said 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.
“It wasn’t chaos,” he said, adding of the order, “maybe we can expand the countries.”
A federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, 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 that in orders issued late on Saturday or early on Sunday, barring authorities from deporting affected travelers. Separately, Democratic attorneys general from California and New York were among states discussing whether to legally challenge the order, according to officials.
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Immigration and civil rights attorneys and advocates said officials at several airports were not complying with federal court orders, including the judge’s stay.
“This is simply unacceptable. All agents should comply with this order immediately,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, during a conference call with reporters on Sunday.
For example, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, an Iranian Fulbright scholar was ordered to board a Ukraine-bound flight just before midnight, said Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project.
It was not until intervention through a legal clinic at Yale University and calls to an assistant U.S. attorney that the plane was brought back to the gate. It was not clear whether the woman was still detained.
Some airports have released those in detention but others, including in San Francisco and Los Angeles, have not, Heller said.
“It’s really clear there is really no method to this madness.”
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, who 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, said on Saturday that his order was “not a Muslim ban,” adding the measures 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.
One of those detained was a Sudanese man with a green card who was released at around noon Sunday after being held by federal authorities at JFK airport in New York, the man’s son said.
Mohamed Suliman, 37, a British citizen, told Reuters that he had traveled from Britain to Sudan, and accompanied the older man back to the United States. He said he was detained for about an hour upon arrival, but his father, Yassin Abdelrahm, 76, was held for 16 hours.
A small crowd of people at the airport’s international Terminal 4 erupted into applause as they watched Suliman vigorously embrace his father.
TRACK STAR FARAH
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.
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.
Britain’s most successful track athlete, Olympic champion Mo Farah, slammed the policy in a statement, contrasting being honored with a knighthood by Britain this month and now being made into what he called an “alien” by Trump. Farah was born in Somalia, came to Britain as a child and who currently lives with his wife and children in Oregon.