- Andrew Harnik/AP
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a press conference on Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s “extreme vetting” immigration order was “not a ban on Muslims.”
“This is not – I repeat – not a ban on Muslims,” Kelly told reporters. “Religious liberty is one of our most fundamental and treasured values.”
Trump on Friday signed an executive order barring citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days while the federal government revisits its screening processes.
The order also suspended the US’s refugee-admitting program for 120 days, indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the country, and gave priority status to minorities fleeing religious persecution. Trump said in an interview on Friday that the caveat was aimed at helping Syrian Christians.
Kelly, however, refused to refer to the action as a “travel ban,” describing it Tuesday as “a temporary pause that allows us to better review the existing refugee and visa vetting system.”
Kelly called the US immigration system “the most generous in the world,” adding that a new analysis of foreign nationals attempting to enter the US was “long overdue and strongly supported by the department’s career intelligence officials.”
Kelly added that the seven countries named in the executive order – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen – “are those designated by Congress and the Obama administration as requiring additional security when making decisions about who comes into our homeland.”
He said customs officials may soon be required to examine the phone contacts and social-media posts of some foreigners trying to enter the US but the decision was still being discussed.
Trump and his aides insisted over the weekend that the order was “not a Muslim ban” and was designed to deter potential attacks on US soil. But experts have noted that the ban does not include countries that have posed serious terrorism threats in the past such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
The order cites the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks three times as justification for the ban, but the 9/11 hijackers were from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon – none of which were included on the list of banned countries.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday that only 109 people were detained or inconvenienced by the order on Saturday, but Kelly disputed that figure on Tuesday when pressed about reports that the number had been much higher.
The acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, said during the press conference that the 109 figure referred to the ban’s “initial hours” and that “721 travelers from the affected countries” who had visas to enter the US were denied boarding at their countries of origin.
‘People on my staff were generally involved’
Reports emerged over the weekend that Department of Homeland Security staff members were allowed to see the order only after Trump signed it, and National Security Council lawyers were prevented from evaluating it. The State Department and the Department of Defense were also excluded from the process, NBC reported.
Kelly on Tuesday said he knew the executive order “was coming” but would not comment on whether he saw the full document before Trump signed it on Friday afternoon.
“People on my staff were generally involved” in drafting the order, Kelly said, noting that he thought the order was “fairly clear.”
“I did know it was under development and had the opportunity to look at two drafts as it got closer to Friday,” Kelly said. “I didn’t get involved in correcting grammar or reformatting the thing.”
McAleenan, the US customs commissioner, said that 872 refugees would be allowed to enter the US this week ” because of hardship concerns” and that the agency had been “responding immediately to any court orders as we did on Saturday night.”
Lawyers representing two Iraqi refugees who were detained at John F. Kennedy airport in New York filed legal challenges to the order, and a federal judge in Brooklyn issued an emergency ruling Saturday evening to stay the continued deportation of travelers.
The ruling, a temporary emergency stay, allowed those who landed in the US and hold a valid visa to remain. Federal judges in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Washington also made emergency rulings on various aspects of the executive order.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus announced on Sunday that green-card holders “won’t be affected” by the order, walking back a decision the White House reportedly made on Friday night to deny entry to citizens of the seven designated countries even if they were legal, permanent US residents.
The acting attorney general, Sally Yates, ordered the Justice Department not to defend the immigration order on Sunday, but she was promptly fired by the White House and replaced.