President Donald Trump on Friday put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily barred visitors from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries, saying the moves would help protect Americans from terrorist attacks, but making an exception for Christians fleeing the civil war that has sparked outrage among human and civil rights groups.
"I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America," Trump said at a Pentagon ceremony. "We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people," he said.
The order limiting entry on visitors from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries is for 90 days. The six other countries are: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, the White House said.
Trump's order will eventually give priority to minority religious groups fleeing persecution. Trump said in an interview with a Christian news outlet that the exception would help Syrian Christians fleeing the civil war there. "They were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians," he said.
Stephen Legomsky, a former chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration, said prioritizing Christians could be unconstitutional.
"If they are thinking about an exception for Christians, in almost any other legal context discriminating in favor of one religion and against another religion could violate the constitution," he said.
Pew Research Center said last October that 38,901 Muslim refugees entered the United States in fiscal year 2016 from all countries — almost the same number of Christian refugees, 37,521.
Trump's order had been expected to include a directive about setting up "safe zones" for Syrian refugees inside the country, but no such language was included.
The impact was immediate, causing "chaos" for Arab-Americans who had family members already en route for a visit, said Abed A. Ayoub, legal and policy director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Ayoub said the order could affect traveling green card holders, students, people coming to the United States for medical care, and others.
The order is already affecting refugees and their families, said Jen Smyers of the Church World Service, a Protestant faith-based group that works with migrants.
Smyers said she spoke to an Iraqi mother whose twin daughters remain in Iraq due to processing delays. "Those two 18-year-old daughters won’t be able to join their mother in the U.S.," she said.
"This ban is constitutional, discriminatory and inhumane and not reflective of our country or our values," said Sameera Hafiz, Advocacy Director for We Belong Together, in a press release.
"The US and what it aspires to be is better than state-sanctioned bigotry. We are not about banning, registering, or deporting people based on religion, skin color, or country of origin, but are about standing for our values in recognizing the human dignity and basic civil rights of all members of our communities. We will resist.”
Other groups, such as immigrants' rights organizers, are also vowing to join the fight against what they call a discriminatory policy.
Trump also signed an order he said would begin the rebuilding of the U.S. military by "developing a plan for new planes, new ships, new resources and new tools for our men and women in uniform."
Exact details were not provided by Trump but the U.S. already spends significantly more than other countries and topped global spending in 2016 with US$622 billion, according to data from the 2016 Jane’s Defence Budgets Report compiled by finance company IHS Markit.