WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday that would temporarily halt the nation’s refugee program and usher in the most sweeping changes in more than 40 years to how the U.S. welcomes the world’s most vulnerable people.
The order would block all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days and suspend the acceptance of refugees from war-torn Syria indefinitely.
“We want to ensure that we are not letting into our country the very threats that our soldiers are fighting overseas,” Trump said after swearing in new Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon.
Trump would also block visa applicants entirely from a list of countries that the administration considers of major terrorism concern, including Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, until a new “extreme vetting” procedure for visa applicants could be launched.
The action capped Trump’s frenetic first week in the White House, as well as a busy day that included a meeting with his first foreign visitor, British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Trump also spoke by phone for about an hour with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, attempting to soothe what has already become a tense relationship. And he swore in Mattis, while signing a second directive that told the Pentagon to draw up a list of plans to upgrade equipment and improve training.
The U.S. has admitted more than 3.3 million refugees since 1975, and allowed more than 80,000 refugees in last year alone. Under Trump’s plan, those numbers would plummet to a trickle for the next several months. For the full fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the order sets a cap of 50,000 refugees.
The order provides an exception for “religious minorities,” a category that could include Christians fleeing largely Muslim countries as well as other groups including Yazidis and Bahais that face persecution in the Mideast.
Trump said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network Friday that the order would help Christians fleeing Syria enter the United States.
The order would also expand the ability of local jurisdictions to block settlement of refugees they object to. During the Obama administration, the federal government stopped efforts by some local elected officials to block refugee resettlements.
The action, seen as part of Trump’s campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the country, sparked an international outcry, given the historic role that the U.S. and other industrialized nations have long held in embracing victims of war and oppression. The last major change in U.S. refugee policy came during the Vietnamese resettlement programs of the mid-1970s.
In recent months, Trump has backed away from a blanket ban on Muslims and instead said he would focus on blocking people coming from countries linked to terrorism.
Democrats, however, insisted that the new order was just a more cleverly worded way of achieving the same goal. And the Council on American-Islamic Relations immediately announced that it would sue.
“Make no mistake-this is a Muslim ban,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. “Broad brush discrimination against refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, most of whom are women and children, runs counter to our national security interests, and will likely be used as a terrorist recruitment tool.”
But Trump won backing from some key congressional Republicans, including Rep. Michael McCaul, of Texas, who leads the Homeland Security committee.
“We are a compassionate nation and a country of immigrants,” he said. “But as we know, terrorists are dead set on using our immigration and refugee programs as a Trojan Horse to attack us.”
The new vetting procedures would block admission of individuals who engage in “acts of bigotry or hatred,” “place violent religious edicts over American law,” or “would oppress members of one race, one gender or sexual orientation.”
Trump called the vetting procedures “totally extreme” during an interview with Fox News on Thursday. “We’re going to have extreme vetting for people coming into our country and if we think there’s a problem, it’s not going to be so easy for people to come in anymore,” he said.
“I’m going to be the president of a safe country,” Trump told ABC News on Wednesday when asked about the policy. “We have enough problems.”
In the ABC interview, he said that Germany and other European countries had made a “tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people.”
He said residents of countries left out of the ban – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia – would nonetheless face what he calls “extreme vetting,” and dismissed concerns that his actions would inflame tensions in the Muslim world.
“The world is as angry as it gets,” he said. “What, you think this is going to cause a little more anger?”
Critics called Trump’s order a betrayal of long-held American ideals.
“Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight as a grand tradition of America, welcoming immigrants, that has existed since America was founded has been stomped upon,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a statement.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose family fled the communist takeover of then-Czechoslovakia when she was a child, said she had benefited personally from the American “tradition of openness.”
“This order would end that tradition and discriminate against those fleeing a brutal civil war in Syria. It does not represent who we are as a country,” she said.
Traditionally, the U.S. has accepted refugees based on their “vulnerability” and their ties to friends and family in the U.S., said Michelle Brani, a director at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
“Religion and nationality are factors to consider in evaluating the refugee claim, but the program should not exclude a refugee on one of those grounds alone,” she said.
Several of those who condemned the order noted that it was signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a reminder that thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were denied safe harbors in the United States and elsewhere, forcing them back to Nazi-controlled territory where many were murdered.
“Donald Trump is retracting the promise of American freedom to an extent we have not seen from a president since Franklin Roosevelt forced Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II,” said Steven Goldstein, the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York City.