The executive order that Trump signed at the Pentagon on Friday [Jan 27] fulfills his campaign pledge to impose "extreme vetting" on Muslim immigrants seeking admission to the United States from seven specified terrorism-impacted countries. The curiously phrased policy emerged after the Trump campaign's original call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" produced a deafening uproar of protests from officials, commentators, and an array of religious, humanitarian, and civil liberties groups.
By embarrassing coincidence, Trump signed the legalistically detailed order on the day set aside for international remembrance of the Holocaust. Human rights groups noted the sad irony by posting pictures of would-be Jewish refugee children who were turned away from the United States on the eve of World War II and later murdered in Nazi death camps.
The closed-door policy for European Jews seeking refuge in the United States was couched in national security terms as a safeguard against enemy infiltrators, but it also rested in part on the widespread anti-Semitism at the time in government circles and among the general public. In like vein, Trump couched the new restrictions on refugees as needed to prevent "radical Islamic terrorists" from gaining entry, but the American Civil Liberties Union aptly called the policy "just a euphemism for discrimination against Muslims."
The order, entitled "Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States," immediately halted the flow of refugees from Syria until further notice, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days, and temporarily banned entry of citizens from six other countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. The order also capped the annual intake of refugees at 50,000, a 50 percent drop from the previous authorized level of 100,000.
"Identifying specific countries with Muslim majorities and carving out exceptions for minority religions flies in the face of the constitutional principle that bans the government from either favoring or discriminating against particular religions," the ACLU's executive director Anthony Romero said in a statement. With the restrictions put into effect immediately, the ACLU joined with other immigrant rights advocates in filing a federal court suit challenging the order as unconstitutional on Saturday morning. Ruling in the case, U.S. District Court Judge Anne Donnelly issued a nationwide stay late Saturday blocking major parts of the order from taking effect. Federal judges in Boston, Virginia, and Washington state also issued rulings ordering travelers detained under the order to be released.
A leading counterterrorism official from the Obama administration said that the policy was neither necessary nor likely to be useful in preventing entry by would-be terrorists. Speaking on the PBS NewsHour, Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's ambassador-at-large and counterterrorism coordinator during Obama's first term, said there has not been a single instance since 9/11 of a terrorist coming from outside the country to carry out an attack on U.S. soil.
Benjamin also countered Trump's accusation that immigration officials have not been carefully vetting would-be refugees under existing policies. "We know more about immigrants before they get here than we know about the president's finances," Benjamin remarked. The refugee vetting process is said to take at least nine months or up to two years.
Trump's order had immediate effects on Saturday morning as would-be migrants were detained at some U.S. airports upon arrival or blocked from boarding U.S.-bound flights at foreign airports. The ACLU suit was filed in federal court in Brooklyn on behalf of two Iraqis detained at Kennedy airport, according to the New York Times. One of the men had reportedly worked as an interpreter for the United States for 10 years.; the other was traveling to join his wife, who had worked in Iraq for a U.S. contractor.
In contrast to the restrictions on refugees, many of Trump's policy moves during his first week consisted of words, not actions. The wall on the border with Mexico cannot be built without appropriation of funds by Congress, and Mexico will not be paying for the wall except through tariffs that actually will affect U.S. consumers along with Mexican exporters. Trump signed an executive order that undermines the Affordable Care Act in advance of repeal or replacement but directs administrative changes only to the extent consistent with existing law.
Trump used his first-sit down interview as president to tell ABC News' David Muir that he favors the use of torture, but he promised to defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis's recommendation against it. In an earlier closed-door meeting with Reublican lawmakers, Trump made the utterly bogus contention that as many as 3 million or 5 million immigrants voted illegally in the presidential election, but nothing will come from the supposed investigation he wants to have done.
Trump had the audacity earlier on Friday to issue a statement of sorts to mark the Holocaust. He pledged in the statement "to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency. and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good." Words, not actions: Trump's actions spoke more loudly and sent a completely different message by withdrawing the welcome mat once held out for "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."