Refugee advocates denounce Trump order as ‘a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty’

President Donald Trump signs an executive order blocking Syrians from being granted refugee status and limiting immigration from seven Muslims-majority countries for 90 days.
President Donald Trump signs an executive order blocking Syrians from being granted refugee status and limiting immigration from seven Muslims-majority countries for 90 days. AP

President Donald Trump’s move Friday to halt refugee admissions and block entry for people from seven majority-Muslim countries drew swift condemnation from advocacy groups that called it a dark day in American history.

Several advocacy groups working on refugee and immigration issues held a joint media call to denounce Trump’s executive order as bigoted, strategically dangerous and an affront to the U.S. record of providing sanctuary to refugees. The news is devastating for students, foreign workers and displaced people, including Muslims who worked with the U.S. military and had been promised sanctuary for their service.

The Trump administration’s position is that the moves will help bar extremists from entering the country. Refugee and civil rights groups counter that the action turns Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric into U.S. policy.

“It’s really akin to President Trump taking a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty,” said Jen Smyers of the Church World Service immigration and refugee program.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said “prejudice and fear and exaggeration” are behind the order, noting that the threat portrayed by the Trump administration doesn’t match U.S. authorities’ and outside experts’ estimates that only a handful of U.S. Muslims are involved in militant activity and that foreign fighters pose little threat to the United States.

Trump’s order freezes refugee admissions and temporarily blocks people from seven nations from entering with visas: Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Those nations are either on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries or have been flagged by the government as countries of concern.

The advocates on the call said Trump’s invocation of 9/11 victims in the order was absurd – none of the hijackers’ countries of origin were included in the ban. The advocates added that the breadth of the order is unprecedented. Nor could they think of a historical precedent for the singling out of a single religion, in this case Islam.

Zogby said the exemption for Christians, described as persecuted religious minorities in the order, is particularly egregious and could backfire and harm vulnerable communities. He said the Arab American Institute had spoken with Christian leaders across the Middle East who rejected the idea of getting priority for resettlement, saying it would only sow resentment and possibly draw retribution in their home countries.

“It is bigotry in its worst form,” Zogby said. “I am an Arab-American Christian. I resent my religion being privileged over that of Muslims.”

The only part of the order that relieved the advocates was the removal of a section pledging to create so-called safe zones in and around Syria – Trump’s idea to relieve the refugee crisis without accepting Syrians for resettlement. The advocates said they were glad to see that section gone because it was untenable and would’ve run counter to the Pentagon, which has warned that such a plan would require thousands of U.S. ground forces to command and maintain the safe zones.

The order is effective immediately. The advocates said they’d already heard of travelers being denied entry. Smyers, of the Church World Service immigration program, said some refugees were scheduled to arrive Monday but that “our best guess now is that they will not arrive.”

Legal advocates on the media call said they believe there will be avenues for constitutional challenges to some of the measures, but that such paths would become clearer once the administration shows how it plans to enforce the order through the departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security. They said they plan to watch closely how the laws are applied.

“We’ll use every legal and advocacy tool to challenge discriminatory laws and actions,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy nonprofit.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam