President Donald Trump said Friday that Christians will be given priority to come to the United States as refugees and later signed an order to suspend the admission of refugees for 120 days and increase the vetting of potential refugees from predominantly Muslim nations to screen out “radical Islamic terrorists.”
“We don't want them here,” Trump said in a signing ceremony at the Pentagon. “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network earlier Friday, Trump was asked whether he would prioritize persecuted Christians in the Middle East for admission as refugees, and he replied, “Yes.”
“They've been horribly treated,” he said. “Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian it was almost impossible. And the reason that was so unfair — everybody was persecuted, in all fairness — but they were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair.
“So we are going to help them.”
A Pew Research Center study found that overall Christians and Muslims were admitted as refugees in about equal numbers in 2016, and far more Christians have been admitted since 2002. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, many more Muslims than Christians have been killed or displaced because of the violence. A 2015 Washington Post poll found that 78 percent of Americans favored equal consideration for refugees regardless of religion.
The order was called “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” and contained a temporary entry ban that would affect citizens of seven countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia.
The order calls for a halt to the flow of refugees from Syria until further notice and suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days until more analysis can determine which countries harbor the greatest threat. The annual intake of refugees for fiscal 2017 would also fall to 50,000 from more than 100,000 authorized now, according to the order.
The downsizing of the refugee program, which had grown under former President Barack Obama's administration, fulfills Trump's campaign pledge to start the “extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees, even though the United States already conducts the most rigorous and drawn-out screening process in the world.
Syrians are subject to special attention because the Islamic State controls significant amounts of territory in their country. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of fighting in 2011, with almost 5 million registered as refugees and more than 6 million internally displaced.
U.S. vetting has changed significantly since the refugee program was suspended for several months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
After applicants register with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, that agency refers some of the most vulnerable to the United States. They include single mothers and their children, victims of violence and people with severe medical conditions requiring sophisticated treatment. Last year, the UNHCR referred more than 34,000 applicants, up from 16,000 in 2015 and 10,000 the year before that.
Syrians being considered for resettlement in the United States pass through a complex, multi-tiered background investigation. It involves biometric and database screening, personal interviews to look for inconsistencies in their stories, and security screenings by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.
The process typically takes nine months to two years to complete.
In the fiscal year that ended in October, the United States admitted 12,500 Syrian refugees. An additional 3,500 were admitted for resettlement in the last three months of 2016. The overwhelming majority were women and children.
Now, with Trump’s executive order, the flow grinds to an immediate halt. People who have sold their belongings in preparation for an imminent departure may not be allowed to board their flights to the United States. It was not immediately clear what would happen to those refugees already in the air when the order was signed.
Refugee advocates spent the week gearing up for the anticipated 120-day suspension of federal the refugee resettlement program.
An online petition, Stand in Solidarity with Refugees, urged elected officials to welcome refugees. Refugee Services of Texas asked supporters to call their lawmakers to voice disapproval of the executive action. Resettlement groups pushed their grassroots message on Facebook and Twitter.
“Refugees need your voice NOW! Call or visit your representative & tell them you support #refugees #RefugeesWelcome,” stated a tweet from Refugee Services of Texas, which places refugees in Tarrant County.
The Rt. Rev. J. Scott Mayer, the fourth provisional bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, issued similar messages on social media.
“Brothers & Sisters, as we hear breaking national news that has immigrants & refugees in its crosshairs, remember refugees & immigrants are human beings, not a political issue,” Mayer said on Facebook.
Catholic Church officials in North Texas and beyond continued to urge Americans and the Trump administration to consider compassion for their fellow humans in dealing with refugee and immigration issues.
“The Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth respects the responsibility of the federal government to secure our borders and ensure the safety of our citizens for the common good,” local church officials said in a statement.
“We urge federal officials to consider the real needs of immigrant families as they implement border security measures. We also remind federal officials, as well as all citizens of the United States, that we are a welcoming nation; our legitimate responsibility to provide safe borders does not justify hostility and animus against families of immigrants.”
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa agreed, saying in a statement that “it is a sad night in America when bigotry and racism flow from our sacred White House. History will remember where we stood today … The world expects America to lead, not to turn its back on those in desperate need only yearning to survive and breathe free.”
Hinojosa noted that Trump chose to sign his order on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which he said underscores that the president’s “bigoted actions threaten the very foundation of who we are … We reject the voices that seek to divide, and we continue to fight for all families.”
Some Republicans sided with the Democratic leader. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, said Trump’s plan “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”
Staff writers Diane Smith and John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Texas Tribune.