President Donald Trump on Sunday defended his executive order banning refugees, migrants and foreign nationals from seven mostly Muslim countries from entering the United States but offered little clarity amid the chaos of legal challenges and national protests.
In a statement issued by the White House late Sunday, the president compared his order to action taken by then-President Obama in 2011 to give new scrutiny to visas for Iraqi refugees, though by almost any measure Trump’s order was far more sweeping.
“To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” Trump said in the statement. “This is not about religion – this is about terror and keeping our country safe. There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order.”
He reiterated that the country would resume issuing visas to all countries “once we are sure we have reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days.”
Two days after Trump issued his controversial order, confusion reigned over its scope and implemention. Even as the president and other top advisers defended the ban, one top Trump official appeared on Sunday to walk back one of the most controversial elements of the action: its impact on green-card holders, who are permament legal residents of the United States.
“As far as green-card holders going forward, it doesn’t affect them,” Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” contradicting what government officials had said only a day earlier.
Other senior administration officials on Sunday defended Trump’s ban after a weekend of intense backlash over the broadness of the executive order, even as they sought to clarify its reach.
Lawmakers from both parties, including Republican senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), spoke out against the action, and federal judges quickly ruled against parts of it.
In a joint statement, McCain and Graham said the government has a responsibility to defend its borders but must uphold “all that is decent and exceptional about our nation.”
“It is clear from the confusion at our airports across the nation that President Trump’s executive order was not properly vetted,” they said, adding, “Such a hasty process risks harmful results.”
Judicial rulings in several cities across the country overnight immediately blocked enforcement of the ban to various degrees, but the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement early Sunday indicating it would continue to implement President Trump’s action.
The statement, which did little to clear up the confusion and frustration playing out at airports across the globe, said the administration “will comply with judicial orders” even as it continues to carry out the president’s order.
“Prohibited travel will remain prohibited, and the U.S. government retains its right to revoke visas at any time if required for national security or public safety,” the statement said. “No foreign national in a foreign land, without ties to the United States, has any unfettered right to demand entry into the United States or to demand immigration benefits in the United States.”
Trump’s virtually unprecedented executive action applies to migrants, refugees and U.S. legal residents – green-card holders – from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Libya and Yemen. People subject to being denied entry include dual nationals, who are those born in one of the seven countries who also hold passports from U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom.
While lawyers are still reviewing a federal court’s temporary stay, administration officials said they believe it is possible for the White House to both comply with the judge’s order and continue enforcing Trump’s executive action. Their thinking is that the judge’s order affects only people now in the United States, and that since the State Department is proactively canceling visas of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, other travelers who would be affected by the judge’s order are not expected to be able to travel to the United States in the first place.
The officials pointed out that while the order affects specifically deportations, the travelers currently stranded at U.S. airports are not legally considered to be deported if they go back to their home countries, because they were never technically admitted to the United States.
That interpretation of the law will almost certainly lead to more court battles in coming days and could keep overseas travelers detained at airports in a state of legal limbo.
Just after 8 a.m. Sunday, Trump tweeted: “Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world – a horrible mess!”
Later in the morning, Trump tweeted, “Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!”
The president’s aggressive action triggered a wave of criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill, but also from a growing number of lawmakers in his own party.
“You have an extreme vetting proposal that didn’t get the vetting it should have,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” even as he stopped short of opposing the order outright.
Leaders of the influential Koch network on Sunday also expressed opposition to the controversial ban, it is not in keeping with their aims to build a free and open society.
“We believe it is possible to keep Americans safe without excluding people who wish to come here to contribute and pursue a better life for their families,” said Brian Hooks, the president of the Charles Koch Foundation.
“The travel ban is the wrong approach and will likely be counterproductive,” he added. “Our country has benefited tremendously from a history of welcoming people from all cultures and backgrounds. This is a hallmark of free and open societies.”
But Republican leaders in Congress on Sunday did not join the opposition to Trump’s order.
“I don’t want to criticize them for improving vetting,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.” He cautioned that the United States doesn’t have a religious test for entry into the country, and stopped short of saying that Trump’s action amounted to a Muslim ban.
“I think we need to be careful,” McConnell said. “We don’t have religious tests in this country.”
The Department of Homeland Security noted that “less than one percent” of international air travelers arriving Saturday in the United States were “inconvenienced” by the executive order – though the situation described by lawyers and immigrant advocates across the country Saturday was one of widespread uncertainty and even chaos at airports where travelers from the targeted countries were suddenly detained.
Federal judges began stepping in late Saturday as requests for stays of President Trump’s action flooded courtrooms from coast to coast.
Late Saturday, a federal judge in New York temporarily blocked deportations nationwide. Her ruling was followed by similar decisions by federal judges in Virginia, Seattle and Boston.
In Brooklyn, Judge Ann Donnelly of the U.S. District Court granted a request from the American Civil Liberties Union to stop the deportations after determining that the risk of injury to those detained by being returned to their home countries necessitated the decision.
Next came a temporary restraining order by District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, who blocked for seven days the removal of any green-card holders detained at Dulles International Airport.
Brinkema’s action also ordered that lawyers have access to those held there because of the ban.
In Seattle, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas S. Zilly granted an emergency stay preventing the deportation of two people had been detained at the Sea-Tac International Airport, according to the ACLU of Washington, which joined other advocates in filing an emergency motion. The two people remain in federal custody and will have a hearing later this week, the group said.
Just before 2 a.m. Sunday in Boston, two federal judges ruled for two University of Massachusetts Dartmouth associate professors – Iranian nationals who are permanent legal residents in the United States – who were held at Logan International Airport when they landed after travel for an academic conference.
The judges there also put a seven-day restraining order on Trump’s executive action. It allows any approved refugee, visa holder, or green-card holder to fly into Boston over the next 7 days and requires Customs and Border Protection to notify airlines that fly into Logan Airport that those passengers will not be detained or forced to return. The ruling applies only to Massachusetts.
The president’s order also riggered harsh reactions from key sectors of the U.S. business community. Leading technology companies recalled scores of overseas employees and sharply criticized the president. Legal experts forecast a wave of litigation over the order, calling it unconstitutional. Lawyers and advocates for immigrants are advising them to seek asylum in Canada.
Yet Trump, who centered his campaign in part on his vow to crack down on illegal immigrants and impose what became known as his “Muslim ban,” was unbowed. As White House officials insisted that the measure strengthens national security, the president stood squarely behind it.
“It’s not a Muslim ban, but we were totally prepared,” Trump told reporters Saturday in the Oval Office. “You see it at the airports, you see it all over. It’s working out very nicely, and we’re going to have a very, very strict ban, and we’re going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country for many years.”
In New York, Donnelly seemed to have little patience for the government’s arguments, which focused heavily on the fact that the two defendants named in the lawsuit had already been released.
Donnelly noted that those detained were suffering mostly from the bad fortune of traveling while the ban went into effect. “Our own government presumably approved their entry to the country,” she said at one point, noting that, had it been two days earlier, those detained would have been granted admission without question.
During the hearing, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt informed the court that he had received word of a deportation to Syria, scheduled within the hour. That prompted Donnelly to ask if the government could assure that the person would not suffer irreparable harm.
Receiving no such assurance, she granted the stay to the broad group included in the ACLU’s request.
A senior Department of Homeland Security official said late Saturday that 109 people had been denied entry into the United States. All had been in transit when Trump signed the order, he said, and some had already departed the United States on flights by late Saturday while others were still being detained awaiting flights. Also, 173 people had not been allowed to board U.S.-bound planes at foreign airports.
The protests that had begun at airports around the country on Saturday continued on Sunday, with crowds swelling in terminals from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles and places in between. In Washington, protestors flocked to Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport. By early afternoon, a raucous crowd of demonstrators filled Lafayette Square and part of Pennsylvania Avenue. Fencing that remained from the recent inauguration kept them from getting closer to the gates of the White House.