President Trump signed an executive order Friday that temporarily halts the nation’s refugee program and ushers in the most sweeping changes in more than 40 years to how the U.S. welcomes the world’s most vulnerable people.
The order blocks all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days and suspends the acceptance of refugees from war-torn Syria indefinitely.
“We want to ensure that we are not letting into our country the very threats that our soldiers are fighting overseas,” Trump said after swearing in new Defense Secretary James N. Mattis at the Pentagon.
Trump also blocked visa applicants entirely from a list of countries that the administration considers of major terrorism concern, including Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, until a new “extreme vetting” procedure for visa applicants can be launched.
The action capped Trump’s frenetic first week in the White House, as well as a busy day that included his first meeting with a foreign leader, British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Trump also spoke by phone for about an hour with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, attempting to soothe what has already become a tense relationship. And he swore in Mattis and signed a second directive that instructs the Pentagon to draw up a list of plans to upgrade equipment and improve training.
The U.S. has admitted more than 3.3 million refugees since 1975, including more than 80,000 refugees in the last year. Under Trump’s plan, those numbers will plummet to a trickle for the next several months. For the full fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the order sets a cap of 50,000 refugees.
The order provides an exception for “religious minorities,” a category that could include Christians fleeing largely Muslim countries as well as other groups including Yazidis and Bahais that face persecution in the Mideast.
Trump said in an interview Friday with the Christian Broadcasting Network that the order will help Christians fleeing Syria enter the United States.
The order also expands the ability of local jurisdictions to block the settlement of refugees they object to. During the Obama administration, the federal government stopped efforts by some local officials to block refugee resettlements.
Trump’s action, seen as part of his campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the country, sparked an international outcry, given the historic role that the U.S. and other industrialized nations have long played in embracing victims of war and oppression. The last major change in U.S. refugee policy came during the Vietnamese resettlement programs of the mid-1970s.
In recent months, Trump has backed away from a blanket ban on Muslims and instead says he will focus on blocking people from countries linked to terrorism.
Democrats, however, say the new order is just a more cleverly worded way of achieving the same goal. And the Council on American-Islamic Relations immediately announced that it would sue.
“Make no mistake — this is a Muslim ban,” said Sen. Kamala Harris of California. “Broad-brush discrimination against refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, most of whom are women and children, runs counter to our national security interests, and will likely be used as a terrorist recruitment tool.”
But Trump won backing from some key congressional Republicans, including Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who leads the House Homeland Security Committee.
“We are a compassionate nation and a country of immigrants,” McCaul said. “But as we know, terrorists are dead-set on using our immigration and refugee programs as a Trojan horse to attack us.”
The new vetting procedures block admission of individuals who engage in “acts of bigotry or hatred” or “would oppress members of one race, one gender or sexual orientation.”
Trump called the vetting procedures “totally extreme” during an interview with Fox News on Thursday.
“We’re going to have extreme vetting for people coming into our country, and if we think there’s a problem, it’s not going to be so easy for people to come in anymore,” he said.
“I’m going to be the president of a safe country,” Trump told ABC News on Wednesday when asked about the policy. “We have enough problems.”
In the ABC interview, Trump said Germany and other European countries had made a “tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people.”
He said residents of countries left out of the ban — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia — will nonetheless face what he calls “extreme vetting,” and dismissed concerns that his actions will inflame tensions in the Muslim world.
“The world is as angry as it gets,” he said. “What, you think this is going to cause a little more anger?”
Critics called Trump’s order a betrayal of long-held American ideals.
“Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight as a grand tradition of America, welcoming immigrants, that has existed since America was founded has been stomped upon,” Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said in a statement.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose family fled the communist takeover of then-Czechoslovakia when she was a child, said she had benefited personally from the American “tradition of openness.”
“This order would end that tradition and discriminate against those fleeing a brutal civil war in Syria. It does not represent who we are as a country,” she said.
Traditionally, the U.S. has accepted refugees based on their “vulnerability” and their ties to friends and family in the U.S., said Michelle Brané, a director at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Religion and nationality are factors to consider in evaluating the refugee claim, but the program should not exclude a refugee on one of those grounds alone,” she said.
Several of those who condemned Trump’s order noted that it was signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a reminder that thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were denied safe harbors in the United States and elsewhere, forcing them back to Nazi-controlled territory, where many were murdered.
“Donald Trump is retracting the promise of American freedom to an extent we have not seen from a president since Franklin Roosevelt forced Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II,” said Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York City.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.
4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with President Trump’s signing of the order on “extreme vetting.”
This article was originally published at 11:05 a.m.