The Trump administration on Sunday sent mixed signals about a sweeping executive order restricting immigration and refugees, as parts of the decree ground to a halt in federal court following widespread confusion and protests in Atlanta and across the nation.
In a terse statement about the order — which is drawing a mixture of praise and scorn in Georgia — U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly appeared to reverse a particularly controversial provision when he said it would not bar green card holders from returning to the United States. Yet, he cited an exception in which authorities gather information “indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare,” signaling they could face case-by-case decisions.
Delivering a similar message on NBC “Meet the Press,” White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said federal immigration authorities have “discretionary authority” to detain travelers from certain countries and ask them additional questions, mentioning Libya, Somalia and Yemen. He added 109 people were detained for additional questioning Saturday.
“The executive order doesn’t affect green card holders moving forward,” Priebus said.
Citing Trump’s orders, U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities temporarily detained 11 travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Saturday, some for several hours, according to relatives and a pair of Georgia congressmen who showed up at the airport. Among the travelers were five green card holders – or lawful permanent residents — returning from trips to Iran. The fate of some 40 Atlanta-bound refugees is in limbo amid enforcement of the president’s order, according to the Atlanta office for the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency.
The order started drawing fire from lawmakers in Trump’s own party Sunday.
“This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country,” Republican U.S. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement Sunday. “That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump issued a prepared statement Sunday defending his order, denying it is a “Muslim ban” and taking aim at the news media.
“To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” he said in his one-paragraph statement. “This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”
His statement followed a news release — issued at 1:26 a.m. by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — that said it would comply with judicial orders but also declared Trump’s decree remained in place and that “prohibited travel will remain prohibited.”
“No foreign national in a foreign land, without ties to the United States, has any unfettered right to demand entry into the United States or to demand immigration benefits in the United States,” the department said.
Issued late Friday afternoon, the president’s order bars people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States U.S. for three months: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The Homeland Security Department initially said the order applied to green card holders from those countries, according to press reports. The order also bars any refugees from resettling in the United States U.S. for four months and it indefinitely blocks Syrian refugees from resettling here.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered at the Atlanta airport Sunday afternoon to protest the president’s orders on refugees and immigrants.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Georgia chapter, said Trump may be president but he isn’t emperor.
“We may have a new president, but not a new Constitution,” he said.
Caitlin Cain of Atlanta said she lives in a small apartment but would gladly welcome refugees into her home. They are not a danger, she said, and the world’s most vulnerable desperately need America’s help. She said she joined the airport protest to show immigrants and refugees that America welcomes them.
“We love you and our nation does not stand with our president,” she said. “I believe our nation as a whole does not support [Trump on immigration.]”
Others are cheering Trump’s actions. Harry Abrams, a Cherokee County Republican activist, called the president’s order an “attempt to restore sanity” to the nation’s immigration policy.
“Our country has legally defined borders and the lawful right to protect those borders,” he said. “The utter failure to respect the laws on the books and circumvent those laws by the past administration has made a mockery of what we stand for.” He added Trump’s order is a big step toward blocking “all aspects of illegal immigration.”
Lance Toland, an aviation insurance manager from Sea Island and an early Trump supporter, said the president is keeping “a campaign promise to secure our borders.”
“Unfortunately the world is not a perfect place and there’s not a perfect policy to secure the world,” he said. “When a curtain drops, sometimes it catches a few toes and that’s unfortunate.”
Several legal experts raised concerns about the Trump administration’s actions. Green card holders cannot be rejected from returning to the U.S. without a hearing before an immigration judge, said Polly Price, an Emory University law professor who specialized in immigration issues. But you can still be detained, she said, and there’s no guarantee of a speedy hearing. Immigration courts have a backlog of around 10 months, she said.
“A green card gives you legal rights,” Price said. “You can’t be returned without due process.”
Temporary visas, such as those given to students or tourists, guarantee you nothing, she added.
“There’s no appeal at almost any stage,” Price said. “Most of the decisions aren’t reviewable. If you look Middle Eastern, you’re in for a difficult time.”
Late Saturday night, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Donnelly halted parts of Trump’s order, stopping the government from removing refugees approved by the government, people with valid immigrant and non-immigrant visas and others from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
A 76-year-old woman with a heart condition and glaucoma was among those who were detained at the Atlanta airport Saturday after returning from Iran, said her daughter, who cited privacy reasons in asking not to be identified.
“That’s not right,” Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta said after meeting with federal immigration officials about those who were detained at the airport. “That’s not fair. We can treat human beings better.”
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Lithonia, joined Lewis at the airport Saturday evening.
“This Muslim ban is contrary to our values, and ironically, is dangerous to U.S. national security interests,” Johnson said. “Make no mistake about it — Americans who respect the Constitution must rise up and oppose this injustice, and the suffering that it wreaks upon innocent men, women and children whose only offense is that they are Muslims.”
There was mostly silence from top Georgia Republican elected officials on Trump’s executive order this weekend, though U.S. Reps. Buddy Carter of Pooler and Rick Allen of Evans expressed support.
“First and foremost,” Allen said, “we must protect our homeland. The executive order does that and keeps Americans safe until we can reform our visa process and the vetting of refugees.”
Carter offered a similar view.
“In the world we currently live in,” he said, “it is smart and necessary to put in place the most robust national security vetting process ever to know exactly who is entering our country so we can continue to welcome those who believe in America’s freedom and share our values.”
Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Bo Emerson and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.
REFUGEES BY THE NUMBERS
How many: About 1,000 refugees came to Georgia in the last three months of 2016. About two-fifths of the refugees — more than 400 people — were from the seven mostly Muslim nations specifically targeted in President Donald Trump’s executive order.
Syrians: A majority of the refugees, 164, were from war-torn Syria. Under Trump’s order, their resettlement in the United States is halted indefinitely.
Temporary detainees: Over the last three months, 133 Somalians, 78 Iranians and 42 Iraqis resettled in Georgia, according to the most recent data from the federal Refugee Processing Center, part of the State Department. Refugees from those countries are denied entry for four months.