President Donald Trump signed an order restricting entry into the US by people from six predominantly Muslim countries, reviving a signature initiative of his presidency that stalled in the face of court challenges and sparked global protests.
The directive takes effect March 16 and removes Iraq from an initial list of seven countries whose citizens cannot travel to the US for the next 90 days. Its scope was narrowed to address legal questions raised by federal courts, with the new version specifying that people who have already been issued visas, green-card holders and dual citizens will not be denied entry. The administration said the new order was needed to address urgent security threats.
The action “protects the United States from countries compromised by terrorism and ensures a more rigorous vetting process,” a fact sheet released Monday by the administration says.
In addition, the US Refugee Admissions Program is being suspended for 120 days while a review of screening procedures is undertaken. When it resumes, the number of refugees admitted to the country will be limited to 50,000 in fiscal 2017, according to an administration fact sheet. That is less than half the limit set in the final year of the Obama administration amid a humanitarian crisis in Syria. US took in 10,000 Syrian refugees last year.
Unlike with previous executive actions he has taken, Trump did not make a public appearance to sign it. Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were set to deliver statements outlining the order.
Trump and his aides repeatedly have described the travel directive as an urgent national security matter. Administration officials said the FBI is looking into some 300 individuals admitted to US as refugees as part of counterterrorism probes, but a congressional aide said it is unclear whether any of those investigations have turned up anything.
But the administration has repeatedly delayed issuing a revised order after a federal court blocked his original plan. At the end of January, White House press secretary Sean Spicer described the delay caused by the court in catastrophic terms.
“The last thing that you want to do is to say well we could’ve done this Saturday, but we waited one more day. Or we wanted to roll it out differently. And someone’s life got lost,” he said on Jan. 31.
The changes reflect a tacit acknowledgment by the White House that the first order, hastily implemented at the end of Trump’s first week in office, was flawed, vulnerable to lawsuits and disruptive to thousands of travelers.
The new travel ban is certain to trigger a fresh round of legal challenges, risking another blow to the administration’s prestige as it tries to marshal political capital to win passage of an ambitious legislative agenda, including the repeal and replacement of the Obamacare health law, a rewrite of the tax code, and a reordering of federal budget priorities to build up the military at the expense of domestic spending.
The administration has been working for weeks to address a federal appeals court’s objections to the original version of the ban.
The initial Jan. 27 order barred citizens of seven nations from entering the US regardless of their legal status. It set off a weekend of chaos at airports and border crossings as hundreds of immigrants and travelers, including at least one translator who worked with US military in Iraq, were detained or delayed in being admitted to the country. Companies, international allies and human rights activists assailed the ban and judges quickly blocked it, forcing the administration into retreat.
Trump also was lobbied by Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster to remove Iraq from the list of countries covered by the ban. Both are veterans of the two US wars in Iraq and argued it would hinder joint efforts by the US and Iraqi forces to combat Islamic State.
The new order also omits a provision from the original directive that would have prioritized religious minorities in making admission decisions, according to a background telephone briefing arranged by the administration. In a break from traditional practices, the officials speaking were not identified to reporters ahead of the briefing.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last month rejected the administration’s bid to reinstate the initial order after a lower court judge temporarily blocked it. The states of Washington and Minnesota led the successful legal challenge to the ban, arguing it hurt their citizens and economies.
The appeals court faulted the administration for an inadequate explanation of why the seven countries were singled out: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The administration says those countries were previously designated by Congress and former President Barack Obama as raising terrorism concerns.
Though the administration has denied its travel restrictions are based on religion, its legal defense has been hampered by declarations Trump made in his presidential campaign that he would keep Muslims out of US. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close Trump ally and informal political adviser, also told Fox News when the order was initially issued that Trump sought to legally enact a Muslim ban.
The administration has argued Trump’s orders should be judged on their own, but the San Francisco-based appeals court judges said that “evidence of purpose beyond the face of the challenged law” can be used to determine its lawfulness.
“Those campaign statements and the Giuliani interview will be damaging,” said Danielle McLaughlin, a lawyer at Nixon Peabody and co-author of a book on the conservative legal movement. “It’s almost like the administration had been hamstrung before it was drafted because of what had already been said.”
A federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia, who was considering one of the lawsuits against the initial order, cited those statements in issuing a preliminary injunction against the ban’s enactment.
US District Judge Leonie Brinkema said on Feb. 13 that she gave little weight to the administration’s assurances that it was not banning Muslims, considering Trump had in 2015 called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US.” She also cited the Giuliani interview.
The initial order banned entry by people from the seven countries for 90 days. It barred Syrian refugees from the US indefinitely, and blocked for 120 days all refugees fleeing their homelands claiming persecution or fear of violence.
After the appeals court ruling, Trump initially indicated he would challenge the decision, tweeting “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” only to be persuaded by administration lawyers and other aides that a rewrite would better withstand legal scrutiny.
Another issue confronting the administration is that his original executive order risked violating the due-process rights of foreigners who have a connection with a US resident or institution.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco said a 2015 US Supreme Court decision left open the possibility of US citizens suing on behalf of non-American spouses trying to enter the country. The appeals court also said the top court has made it clear that everyone in the US, legally or not, is entitled to due process, or the right to fair procedures before being deprived of freedom or property.
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