President Donald Trump has barred all refugees from entering the United States for four months, and indefinitely halted any from Syria, saying the ban is needed to keep out "radical Islamic terrorists."
The order Friday immediately suspended a program that last year resettled in the U.S. roughly 85,000 people displaced by war, political oppression, hunger and religious prejudice. Trump indefinitely blocked those fleeing Syria, where a civil war has raged, and imposed a 90-day ban on all immigration to the U.S. from seven Muslim majority nations, citing terrorism concerns.
"We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas," Trump said as he signed the order at the Pentagon. "We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people."
Trump said the halt in the refugee program was necessary to give agencies time to develop a stricter screening system. While the order did not spell out what additional steps he wants the departments of Homeland Security and State to take, the president directed officials to review the refugee application and approval process and find any more measures that could prevent those who pose a threat from using the refugee program.
The U.S. may admit refugees on a case-by-case basis during the freeze, and the government will continue to process requests from people claiming religious persecution, "provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country."
In an interview with CBN News, Trump said persecuted Christians would be given priority in applying for refugee status.
"We are going to help them," Trump said. "They've been horribly treated."
Friday, Jan. 27 was Trump's most robust day of national security and foreign policy at the start of his presidency. He met with British Prime Minister Theresa May and had a lengthy phone call with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
As a candidate, Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration to the U.S. He later shifted his focus to putting in place "extreme vetting" procedures to screen people coming to the U.S. from countries with terrorism ties.
The State Department said the three-month ban in the directive applied to Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen — all Muslim-majority nations.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it would challenge the constitutionality of the executive order.
"There is no evidence that refugees — the most thoroughly vetted of all people entering our nation — are a threat to national security," Lena F. Masri, the group's national litigation director. "This is an order that is based on bigotry, not reality."
3,017 refugees were resettled in Georgia in fiscal year 2016. In response to the order, Atlanta-based refugee resettlement nonprofit New American Pathways released an explainer of how their activities will be affected.
New American Pathways CEO Paedia Mixon said in a statement:
"We are very disappointed in our President’s executive order. The world is facing the worst refugee crisis in history. We have all seen the images of extreme human suffering as millions have fled with nothing but the hope of refuge somewhere safe and free from discrimination. As America, the strongest nation in the world, turns its back, we are eliminating that hope for a population that has few other options.
While we disagree with the executive order, we hope that any unfortunate pause is used to reaffirm America’s commitment to welcoming those fleeing persecution, yearning to be free. America was built on this very foundation of freedom, and we believe that discussion on this misunderstood issue can help all Americans support and feel proud once again of our welcoming stance.
Along with our partners and broad base of community supporters of many faiths and ethnicities, New American Pathways will continue to advocate for a robust refugee resettlement program that cares for the world’s most vulnerable populations without discrimination."
The International Rescue Committee, which also has a location in Atlanta, called the decision "harmful and hasty," saying it would impact "thousands of innocent people – mostly women and children – awaiting resettlement to the United States."
IRC President and CEO David Miliband said:
America has the strongest, most successful resettlement program in the world. Certified by successive administrations, the U.S. resettlement program makes it harder to get to the United States as a refugee than any other route. This is one of many reasons to deplore the hasty decision made today ... In truth, refugees are fleeing terror – they are not terrorists. And at a time when there are more refugees than ever, America must remain true to its core values. America must remain a beacon of hope.
The IRC noted that it "will continue to provide refugees of all faiths and nationalities with resettlement support in the United States and critical humanitarian relief in countries where the ban will take hold." The organization also pointed out that the order was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
During the past budget year, the U.S. accepted 84,995 refugees, including 12,587 people from Syria. President Barack Obama had set the refugee limit for this budget year at 110,000.
According to Trump's executive order, he plans to cut that to 50,000. Refugee processing was suspended in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and restarted months later.
The president was applauded by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said it was "time to re-evaluate and strengthen the visa-vetting process."
But many Democrats cast the measures as un-American.
"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," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
The order makes no mention of a plan to provide safe zones in Syria and the surrounding area. A draft of the order had directed the Pentagon and the State Department to produce a plan for safe zones in the war-torn Mideast nation.
The president's directive capped a hectic first week for Trump at the White House, giving Americans an initial look at how he intends to position the United States around the globe.
Earlier Friday, he hosted May at the White House for his first meeting with a world leader since taking office. Asked about whether he would revert back to Bush-era use of torture, Trump said he would defer to the views of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
"He has stated publicly that he does not necessarily believe in torture or waterboarding, or however you want to define it. ... I don't necessarily agree," Trump said. "But I would tell you that he will override because I'm giving him that power. He's an expert."
The Associated Press and other news organizations have obtained copies of a draft executive order signaling sweeping changes to U.S. interrogation and detention policy. The draft, which the White House said was not official, also requests recommendations on whether the U.S. should reopen CIA detention facilities outside the United States. Critics said the clandestine sites have marred America's image on the world stage.
Trump held firm on another matter of contention, trade and illegal immigration from Mexico. He told reporters he had a "very good call" with Pena Nieto earlier in the day, but he reaffirmed his belief that Mexico has "outnegotiated and beat us to a pulp" on trade — and that would change.
"We're no longer going to be the country that doesn't know what it's doing," he declared a day after the Mexican leader canceled his visit to Washington in response to Trump's plans to build a border wall and have Mexico pay for it.
Mary Claire Kelly contributed to this report.