Trump suspends refugee program to defend U.S. against ‘terrorists’

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday aimed at reviewing and tightening the procedures for allowing refugees into the United States.

The order:

  • Blocks refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days so officials can review the admissions process
  • Bans the entry of all Syrians indefinitely
  • Puts a 90-day hold on visas granted to people from certain countries, later determined to be Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen. The order says visa-holders from some countries do not provide the U.S. with enough information to determine whether they are safety threats. Therefore, the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State, along with the Director of National Intelligence, will conduct a review to identify what kind of information is needed, and which countries are not providing it. Diplomats, NATO visas and U.N. workers are exempt.
  • Caps the number of refugees allowed into the country at 50,000 in fiscal year 2017

The order implements “new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don’t want them here,” President Trump said at the Pentagon after former Gen. James Mattis was officially sworn in as defense secretary.

“We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people,” he said.

The full text of the order, released later Friday night, says the secretaries of State and Homeland Security may still decide to admit individual refugees on a case-by-case basis — if it would not “pose a risk to the security or welfare of the United States” — under certain conditions:

  • If the person is “a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution”
  • If admitting the person is part of U.S. compliance with a preexisting international agreement
  • If the person is already in transit and denying admission would cause undue hardship

This comes days after Mr. Trump delivered on another campaign promise: an executive order that directs agencies to begin planning and identify funding for a wall along the U.S. Border with Mexico.

The president signed another executive order Friday to rebuild the nation’s armed forces, including plans for new planes, ships and other resources for service members, he said.

WATCH:Donald Trump signs executive orders at the Pentagon

When word of the refugee ban came out this week, religious leaders and refugee advocates rallied against the order, saying it goes against America’s history and values.

“At a time when millions of people around the world have fled their homes because of violence, we must remember our country’s proud history: The United States is a beacon of freedom and hope for all people regardless of race, religion or nationality,” said Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive officer of Mercy Corps.

Of all the groups allowed entry into the U.S., refugees are the most scrutinized, said Erol Kekic, who leads the Immigration and Refugee Program at the Church World Service, one of the country’s main refugee resettlement groups.

“We know who they are, where they’re coming from, we have their biometric and security information,” he said. “Our program is very orderly and secure.”

The current refugee screening process takes about 18 to 24 months, according to the State Department, which manages the nine U.S. centers around the world that prepare refugee applications for review.

Has this ever been done before?

According ABC News, the State Department temporarily stopped processing Iraqi refugees for six months in 2011 after the FBI found evidence linking two Iraqis living in Kentucky to bomb-making devices in Iraq. The pause was reportedly aimed at giving the FBI time to fingerprint more bombing equipment.

The State Department press office this week did not confirm the pause in processing in 2011, though a search on its Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System showed that Iraqi refugees who already had been processed continued to enter the U.S. that year.

Politico reported on another instance when the State Department suspended the U.S. refugee program for Iraqis: It shut down in 2014 for about a year while Iraqi forces were fighting Islamic State militants. The program reportedly reopened in April 2015.

Will a pause in the process work?

Many think the ban will force some improvements, including House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who co-sponsored legislation in the last Congress that would add the FBI to the U.S. agencies screening refugees. It passed the House but not the Senate.

Currently, the U.S. refugee admissions program involves the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We are a compassionate nation and a country of immigrants,” McCaul said in a statement. “But as we know, terrorists are dead set on using our immigration and refugee programs as a Trojan Horse to attack us. Today, President Trump signed an order to help prevent jihadists from infiltrating the United States. With the stroke of a pen, he is doing more to shut down terrorist pathways into this country than the last administration did in eight years.

“As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, I will ensure the appropriate steps are taken to tighten immigration and refugee screening. And in the long run, I will work with the White House to make sure the United States remains both a beacon of hope — open to all freedom-loving people — and a nation well-defended against all who wish to do it harm,” McCaul said.

In a series of tweets, Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, praised President Trump’s executive order, saying “From San Bernardino to Orlando, it’s clear that jihad is in America. We must destroy it once and for all.”

Refugee advocates, however, don’t agree with the president’s approach.

“The United States is the wealthiest country on the planet. The size and strength of its military are unparalleled. Yet by considering denying safe haven to refugees the Trump administration adopts a posture of fear more appropriate for a weak and powerless state,” said Joel Charny, director of Norwegian Refugee Council USA.

“Not only will this order put significant numbers of individuals fleeing conflict and persecution at immediate risk, but also it will harm our relations around the world,” said Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE. “Frontline states, such as Jordan, struggle to keep their borders open to millions of people just trying to survive. Should the U.S. not live up to our humanitarian commitments, we could foreseeably compromise relationships vital to our national interests.”

The National Iranian American Council issued a statement saying it too wanted to help protect America from terror, “but a blanket ban based on national origin does nothing to achieve that objective.”

“Even if this were the right approach,” the statement continued, “it is notable that the list doesn’t include Saudi Arabia and would have done nothing to prevent 9/11 or the other terrorist attacks committed by radical Wahhabi jihadists in the U.S.”

Rather than blocking refugees, the U.S. should direct its energies toward helping address the capacity of terrorist groups to inspire lone-wolf attacks, Kekic said. “It’s not a refugee or migration issue. It’s a fundamental inequality issue that we need to combat together. To try to pin some of the negative or terrorist actions of individuals onto entire groups of people is a dangerous precedent.”

Catholic Relief Services, which “strongly opposes this move,” said in a statement that “a religious test against Muslims today can be a religious test against Christians tomorrow.”

Will the U.S. hit its refugee target?

Until this point, the United States appeared to be on track to fulfilling the Obama administration goal of bringing 110,000 refugees to the U.S. during the current fiscal year, according to a Jan. 20 report from the Pew Research Center.

Since October — the start of the current fiscal year — about 30,000 refugees have entered the U.S., according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

The previous year, the U.S. resettled nearly 85,000 refugees, 46 percent of whom were Muslim, reported the Pew Research Center.

The Obama administration also raised the goal for admitting Syrian refugees to 10,000. In previous years, it was around 1,500. By the end of the last fiscal year, more than 13,000 Syrians had arrived in the U.S.

President Trump’s executive order says no more than 50,000 refugees may enter the U.S. in fiscal year 2017, until he determines that admitting more “would be in the national interest.”

This story was updated with a link to the executive order, posted on the White House’s website on Monday. We will continue tracking the refugee resettlement issue as it develops.