Demonstrators at Philadelphia International Airport protest against Trump’s executive order on immigration.
(Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)
Starting with the earliest Biblical texts, God said to love the sojourner. He never said it would be easy.
Security concerns about terrorists entering the United States as refugees or on immigration visas began to climb after Americans watched Muslim jihadists wage attacks in Europe—starting with coordinated strikes in Paris in November 2015. That month presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, and 31 governors—all Republicans but one—quickly followed, saying they would not allow U.S. officials to resettle refugees from Syria in their state.
Even after the Paris attacker thought to be a Syrian refugee turned out not to be, as initially reported, the concern stuck as ISIS stated it intended to infiltrate the West with terrorists posing as refugees. Trump would later modify his position away from an outright ban on Muslim immigrants, but it was no surprise he would take action to tighten rules concerning refugee and immigrant arrivals.
The surprise was the way he did it. Without formal consultation with Congress or executive branch agencies, President Trump issued the directive at 4:42 p.m. on Jan. 27, suspending at that moment all refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, and barring entry for 90 days immigrants from seven terrorist hot spots.
The order calls on Cabinet officers (most not yet confirmed by Congress) to carry out an extensive review of policies and cuts by half the total number of refugees expected to be admitted in 2017.
“We knew it was coming, but we did not anticipate a total shutdown,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, the humanitarian organization founded under the National Association of Evangelicals and one of the nine agencies that contract with the State Department to resettle refugees. Hundreds of refugees already were in transit to the United States that weekend, with housing and other needs arranged by voluntary church organizations and others.
The immediate effect was to deny entry to refugees whose cases the government had resolved—most involving a two- to three-year interview and vetting process—not only from terror-producing states but from war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and police states like Myanmar. Under public pressure, the Trump administration later said it would allow into the country 872 refugees who were already in transit. With the federal fiscal year underway since last October, the executive order caps refugees this year at 50,000, down from more than 100,000. More than 32,000 already have arrived since the start of the fiscal year last October, leaving little room for new cases once a review and suspension end.
The order also meant denying upon arrival entry to legal immigrants and nonimmigrants with valid visas. At New York’s JFK airport, among the first in that category were two Iraqis with more than a decade’s experience serving alongside U.S. military personnel and contractors and facing death threats as a result.
While confusion reigned at international airports and among immigration officials, Trump championed the new policy, saying it will particularly aid persecuted Christians from the Middle East: “They’ve been horribly treated,” he told Christian Broadcasting Network the day the order took effect.
Advocates for the persecuted also pushed back against characterizing the order as a “Muslim ban” or favoring Christians. By targeting “religious minorities,” said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, the order may prioritize Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, Iran’s Baha’is, or Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslims.