President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order that could indefinitely ban the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. and impose a religious test on incoming refugees apparently aimed at blocking Muslims, according to news reports and an internal email sent to staffers at a major refugee assistance provider and obtained by Latterly.
The order comes the same day as Trump plans to order the construction of a wall along the Mexico border. The wall and the Muslim ban were among the centerpieces of his campaign and have divided Americans perhaps more than any other of his policy proposals.
The immigration order would reduce the cap on annual refugee resettlements in the United States to 50,000 from the current 85,000 set by the Obama administration, which also stipulated 10,000 of those should be Syrians. Trump, however, is expected to restrict access to refugees and visa holders from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, Reuters reported, citing unnamed congressional aides and immigration experts.
“It now appears that the new Administration might issue an Executive Order that puts a pause of 120 days on the entire USRAP; bans Syrians from the program indefinitely; provides preference to religious minorities from certain countries; and lowers the ceiling to 50,000,” wrote Erol Kekic, director of the Immigration & Refugee Program at Church World Service, which provides refugee integration services throughout the United States. “We were expecting the EO to be announced today, but nothing came through yet.”
The email makes clear that CWS has not received confirmation about the details of the executive order, first published by Latterly. But New York Times interviews with people who have seen drafts of the orders suggest they’re accurate.
The White House has not released a statement on the executive order, but Trump sent out a tweet announcing today would be a “big day.”
“We have heard the same, but have no confirmation at this time,” Christian Fuchs, a spokesman for Jesuit Refugee Service, told Latterly. “We oppose the substance of the reports, and believe the U.S. should continue our long history of welcoming refugees and others seeking asylum.”
The Times reported that other executive orders could “include reviewing whether to resume the once-secret ‘black site’ detention program; keep open the prison at Guantánamo Bay; and designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.” One executive order draft would trigger “a review of the Army Field Manual to determine whether to use certain enhanced interrogation techniques.”
In testimony before the Senate, Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo said that “if experts believed current law was an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country, I would want to understand such impediments and whether any recommendations were appropriate for changing current law.” During his campaign, Trump pledged to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
Last year the House of Representatives introduced similar legislation to impose restrictions on the religious affiliations of incoming refugees, a move apparently aimed at curbing the admission of Muslims to the United States. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Raul R. Labrador, Republican of Idaho, the bill, H.R. 4731, dubbed as “The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act,” proposed an annual refugee resettlement ceiling of 60,000 refugees a year and also gave preferential treatment toward “practitioners of a minority religion in the country from which they sought refuge.”
In December 2015, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He later scaled back that idea, saying he would instead filter refugees coming from “terrorist nations,” though he didn’t say which those were at the time.
That campaign declaration caused an uproar among human rights advocates and some (though not all) legal scholars who questioned the constitutionality of a religious test for immigration. One prominent critic was then-Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, now the vice president, who tweeted, “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.”
It’s unlikely the courts will strike down the immigration restrictions, however. In an interview with Reuters, Stephen Legomsky, chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Obama, said the executive order “would be exactly within his legal rights. “But from a policy standpoint, it would be terrible idea because there is such an urgent humanitarian need right now for refugees.”
In March, responding to Labrador’s proposed legislation, Jesuit Refugee Services and 233 other organizations blasted the bill as an affront to American values.
“With more than 60 million refugees and displaced people around the world, it is critically important that the U.S. demonstrates global leadership by welcoming refugees,” they wrote. “Enacting legislation that would send the message that refugees are not welcome here is a sharp departure from our nation’s character as a beacon of freedom and our history as a country founded by refugees and immigrants.” It added that prioritizing religious minorities “undermines the integrity of the program, which resettles refugees based on vulnerability, not a hierarchy of human rights.”
Updated 9:27 a.m. and 10 a.m. Jan. 25 with additional confirmation and new information from news reports.