WASHINGTON – The secretary of Homeland Security on Tuesday defended President Donald Trump’s ban on refugee admissions and vowed that his department would enforce the policy “humanely.”
Secretary John Kelly’s comments came just days after Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring refugees from all countries – and all travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries – that led to confusion at airports and the detention of some people trying to come to the U.S.
Trump said the order is needed to give U.S. officials time to evaluate refugee review procedures to make sure no terrorists enter the country claiming to be refugees, and Kelly agreed Tuesday.
“This is not, I repeat, not a ban on Muslims,” said Kelly, addressing one of the biggest concerns raised by critics of the action.
“The seven countries named in the executive order are those designated by Congress in the Obama administration as requiring additional security when making decisions about who comes into our homeland,” he said.
Those assurances did little to calm critics like Petra Falcon, the executive director of Phoenix-based Promise Arizona. She said the fallout from the president’s order led to “utter confusion” at airports that led to profiling and turned what had been a time of welcome for foreign visitors into a time of fear.
“It was just dead wrong,” Falcon said.
“I just don’t think he (Trump) has any capacity to understand humanity and what his role is on governing,” she said. “This is not governing, this is a witch hunt.”
Unless they are U.S. citizens, nearly all visitors from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen are “temporarily suspended” from entering the country for 90 days, according to a Department of Homeland Security document on the president’s order. During that time, the document said, those countries can be reviewed and standards developed to prevent terrorists or criminals from getting in from those countries.
“Ultimately, we’d like to see all those countries taken off the list,” Kelly said.
In the meantime, said Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner of the department’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, lawful permanent U.S. residents and special immigrant visa holders will be given waivers to fly abroad.
Immigrant and nonimmigrant visa holders will be stopped before boarding planes to other countries, and will be referred to the State Department for further processing, he said.
McAleenan said that over the weekend there were 721 travelers who were denied boarding because they had visas from one of the seven targeted countries. That was out of 1 million travelers who flew to the U.S. during the first 72 hours of the order, he said, about 500,000 of whom were foreign nationals.
Despite claims of chaos, McAleenan said the department moved swiftly to meet executive order, first updating its systems to identify passport and visa holders from the affected countries, then calling directors in the field to give them guidance on how to enforce the order.
Department officials also called air carriers and airports about the order, he said.
The department worked overnight Friday and Saturday to develop a process to issue waivers to qualified travelers from those countries, including lawful permanent residents, military, those already in transit when the order was signed and other special cases, he said.
In total, McAleenan said, the department processed waivers for 1,060 lawful permanent residents of the United States and 75 waivers to immigrant visa and nonimmigrant visa holders over the weekend.
While defenders said the order is needed to protect national security, Falcon said the order is a sign our country is going backwards. She said it is reminiscent of Arizona under SB 1070, the “papers please” law that opponents said let police use racial profiling to demand identification and documentation from people.
“This is the wrong pathway, for us really being the great nation that we are,” Falcon said of the latest order. “It’s just heartbreaking.”