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Amid backlash, White House appears to back down on applying new ban to green card holders

Amid backlash, White House appears to back down on applying new ban to green card holders
Protesters demonstrate against the Trump administration's refugee and immigration orders at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Jan. 28 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

President Trump defended his new immigration crackdown on Sunday as a stand against terrorism that will improve American national security, even as the White House appeared to back away from a key element amid the chaos at U.S. airports over the weekend.

Trump said in a written statement Sunday afternoon that his crackdown on admissions of travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries had nothing to do with religion but was instead "about terror and keeping our country safe."

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"I have tremendous feeling for the people involved in this horrific humanitarian crisis in Syria," he said. "My first priority will always be to protect and serve our country, but as president I will find ways to help all those who are suffering."

The statement came after the White House — facing a backlash from lawmakers, including some Republicans — appeared to back down on one piece of the new immigration order, signaling that travelers trying to enter the country from the seven banned countries will be allowed in if they hold green cards.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said that these legal permanent residents are exempt from the travel ban "moving forward," even though over the weekend other administration officials said the rule did apply to them.

The apparent reversal came amid a national controversy over the new order that temporarily halts the entry of all refugees to the U.S. and any traveler from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Federal judges across the country have blocked parts of the president's executive action since it came down on Friday, mostly preventing the deportation of some travelers who ran into the first wave of implementation.

The back-and-forth over the green card holders reflected confusion about the policy, which also indefinitely bars Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.  Lawyers for some of the affected immigrants said border agents were applying the rules differently.

Further complicating the picture was a statement from the Department of Homeland Security asserting that its agents would enforce all of Trump's orders while also complying with judicial orders. As some of the orders block deportation, that left individual officers to try and figure out which priorities to honor.

In the chaos, Trump's fellow Republicans waved red flags on Sunday, warning the administration to slow down and make sure the tough new rules were implemented with deliberation.

U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) blasted the Trump executive order for what they said was a "hasty" implementation.

"It is clear from the confusion at our airports across the nation that President Trump's executive order was not properly vetted," McCain and Graham said in a joint statement. "We are particularly concerned by reports that this order went into effect with little to no consultation with the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security.

"Such a hasty process risks harmful results," the senators said. "We should not stop green-card holders from returning to the country they call home. We should not stop those who have served as interpreters for our military and diplomats from seeking refuge in the country they risked their lives to help. And we should not turn our backs on those refugees who have been shown through extensive vetting to pose no demonstrable threat to our nation, and who have suffered unspeakable horrors, most of them women and children."

Trump fired back with a late-afternoon tweet, saying their statement was "wrong" and that they are "sadly weak on immigration."

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Democrats will introduce legislation as soon as Monday to stop the president's actions. House Democrats are taking similar legislative action, and lawmakers from both chambers will rally Monday evening at the Supreme Court to protest Trump's orders.

"This executive order was mean-spirited and un-American," said Schumer, the New York Democrat, choking up as he stood with immigrants and refugees at a news conference Sunday. "It must be reversed immediately."

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Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said House Democrats are exploring legal options, including an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the actions. But the chances of passing a bill through the Republican-controlled Congress are slim, as most GOP leaders and lawmakers have not objected to Trump's ban.

White House officials on Sunday defended the Trump plan, insisting he took great care in crafting it. If the announcement came as a surprise to many, they say, that was by design. The White House did not want to tell too many people about it in advance, thinking that too much notice would compromise the strategy, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.

"The people that needed to know, knew," he said Sunday on ABC. "The appropriate leadership was notified."

Still the confusion over the particulars was significant — especially on the question of the green cards. In explaining the new order, administration officials on Saturday told reporters that the green card holders from the seven banned countries would have to get waivers in order to return to the U.S. after traveling outside the country.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to reporters on Saturday, the White House official said green card holders from one of the seven affected countries who are currently outside the U.S. would need a case-by-case waiver to return to the U.S., according to a pool reporter who was present. Those green card holders in the United States would have to meet with a consular officer before leaving the country, the official said.

On Sunday, Priebus said otherwise.

"As far as green card holders, moving forward, it doesn't affect them," Priebus told NBC's Chuck Todd in an interview, adding that border officials still retain "discretionary authority" to hold people from the suspect countries before letting them enter the U.S.

The interpretation of the new rules continued in foreign capitals, with British officials announcing publicly that they had gotten clarification from the U.S. government regarding U.S.-bound travelers from their country. "If you are a U.K. national who happens to be traveling from one of those [banned] countries to the U.S., then the order does not apply to you, even if you were born in one of those countries," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a statement to British citizens.

The only dual nationals who might have extra checks are those coming from one of the seven countries themselves, for example, a U.K.-Libya dual national coming from Libya to the U.S., Johnson's statement said. The White House did not immediately confirm the British summary.

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Twitter: @cparsons

Twitter: @LisaMascaro

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