President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday blocking entry into the US of people from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days and suspending all refugee admissions, from all countries, for 120 days.
The order will also usher, when authorities are ready, new vetting measures for visitors, Trump said, intended to “keep radical Islamic terrorists” out of the United States as he had promised while campaigning for the White House.
The president also signed an executive action, different from an order that is enforceable by law, a “great rebuilding of the armed services” by developing “a plan for new planes, new ships, new resources and new tools for our men and women in uniform”.
Trump signed the two orders during a ceremony at his first trip to Pentagon, headquarters of US military, to swear in the new defense secretary, retired Marine general James Mattis and offered remarks as explanation for the two actions.
“We don’t want them here,” Trump said about the order introducing new vetting measures and rules for admission. “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.”
The countries effected by what is being called a “Muslim Ban” are Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, all Muslim-majority countries. The block will be in force for 90 days, and not 30 days as a leaked draft of the order had said.
The order halts the admission of refugees from Syria for an indefinite period, and for 120 days for all other refugees. And when the program resumes, it will allow only 50,000 refugees in 2017, down by more than half from 110,000 in 2016.
The order called “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, was aligned with Trump’s election promise of restricting entry into the United States of people with suspect motives, those intended to cause harm and damage.
Trump started with an extreme position on the issue, calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country in the aftermath of the San Bernardino terrorists attack in December 2015, that reminded a lot of Americans of 9/11.
He toned it down over a period of time to “extreme vetting” for visitors and immigrants from areas of the world impacted by terrorism, mostly, it was extrapolated, Muslim-majority countries, some of whom figured in the Friday blacklist.
But it did not include Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey, countries hit the hardest by terrorist attacks in recent times. But the order said clearly that more countries could be added to that list as deemed necessary by relevant government agencies.
In addition, it specifically bars Syrian refugees from the United States indefinitely, or until the president himself decides that they no longer pose a threat.
Critics were harsh as expected.
Joe Crowley, chairman of the House Democrats, said in a statement it was “unconscionable that President Trump would close the door to the desperate children, families, and elderly who have been forced to flee their homes and countries because of unspeakable acts of violence and war.”
During the suspensions of the refugee and visa programs, new rules will be devised for what Trump as called the “extreme vetting” of applicants’ backgrounds.
Some exceptions will be made for members of “religious minorities,” which – in the countries targeted by the decree – would imply favourable treatment for Christians.
Separately, Trump said that Syrian Christians will be given priority when it comes to applying for refugee status, a policy that would likely be challenged on similar grounds.
Civil liberties groups and many counterterror experts condemned the measures, declaring it inhumane to lump the victims of conflict in with the extremists who threaten them.
“’Extreme vetting’ is just a euphemism for discriminating against Muslims,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Romero argued that, by choosing countries with Muslim majorities for tougher treatment, Trump’s order breaches the US Constitution’s ban on religious discrimination.
Ahmed Rehab, director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his group would mount legal challenges to fight the order “tooth and nail.”
“It is targeting people based on their faith and national origin, and not on their character or their criminality,” he told AFP.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist and Nobel peace laureate who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, said she was “heartbroken.”
She urged Trump not to abandon the world’s “most defenseless children and families.”
But the measure will be popular with Trump’s nationalist base, and stops short of a threat made during last year’s campaign to halt all Muslim travel to the United States.
Trump’s supporters defend the measures as necessary to prevent supporters of al Qaeda or the Islamic State group from infiltrating the US homeland disguised as refugees.
And the state department, which with the department of homeland security will have to implement the measures, said it was ready to put them into immediate effect.
“We will announce any changes affecting travellers to the United States as soon as that information is available,” spokesman Mark Toner said.
“We take seriously our responsibility to safeguard the American public while remaining committed to assisting the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Trump signed the order – which will cut the number of refugees the United States plans to resettle this fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000 – in a ceremony at the Pentagon.
Moments earlier, he had signed an order to “rebuild” the US military and had watched vice-president Mike Pence swear in respected former Marine general James Mattis as his new secretary of defense.
Trump showered Mattis with praise and had earlier admitted he would allow the general’s opposition to the use of torture to override his own enthusiasm for harsh measures.
In what was a busy day from Trump, one week after his inauguration, he also met with Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, the first foreign leader to visit his White House.
He hailed the “most special relationship” between the twin Atlantic powers and praised Britain’s decision to leave the European Union as a “wonderful thing”.
“When it irons out, you’re going to have your own identity, and you are going to have the people that you want in your country,” Trump said, in a nod to his own immigration stance.
“You’re going to be able to make free trade deals without having somebody watching you and what you are doing.”
May conveyed an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II for Trump to come to Britain for a state visit this year, and thanked him for his “100%” support of NATO.
Over the weekend, Trump is due to make calls to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, France’s President Francois Hollande and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
He is keen to develop friendly ties with Moscow, but played down reports that he might quickly end US economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine.
(With inputs from AFP)