Trump planning to suspend refugee program, block visitors from some Muslim nations

President Donald Trump plans to temporarily halt the admission of refugees into the United States — and impose an indefinite ban on those fleeing Syria — while also suspending the entry of citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, according to a draft copy and supporting material for a White House executive order.

Trump may further direct U.S. officials to explore ways to create “safe zones” in Syria, where a civil war has killed an estimated half a million people since 2011, according to the draft material. He also is expected to reduce refugee caps by more than half, while instructing American officials to give priority to religious minorities among those who are eventually allowed into the United States.

The president argues such restrictions are necessary to safeguard American citizens from would-be terrorists trying to infiltrate the country. Humanitarian activists, as well as some U.S. diplomats, worry that the moves will merely boost terrorist recruitment, anger allies and degrade America’s moral standing. Some advocates called the plans blatantly anti-Muslim and indicated they would file suit to stop them.

Trump is expected to issue the directives focused on refugees and visas as early as Thursday. While the details are not yet finalized, the broad outlines in the draft copies being circulated suggest a turn away from the traditional role of the U.S. as a destination for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The draft documents call for a 120-day suspension of the entire U.S. program that resettles refugees. During that period, the secretaries of State and Homeland Security are instructed to review screening procedures use by the refugee admissions programs.

Once the program is restarted, U.S. officials will be allowed to admit a total of no more than 50,000 refugees this fiscal year — down from the 110,000 authorized by President Barack Obama. Officials also are expected to find ways to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals fleeing religious persecution “provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality,” according to the draft material.

Such a formulation appears to suggest that Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims will get preference when fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East. But it’s not clear how Trump is choosing to define religion and whether certain sects of some religions could qualify as minorities. Shiite Muslims, for instance, are often persecuted in Sunni Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan.

Trump also insists that the U.S. “cease refugee processing of and the admittance of nationals of Syria as refugees until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the [U.S. Refugee Assistance Program] to ensure its alignment with the national interest.” The documents do not offer any details as to what conditions would satisfy Trump that the national interest is safe.

The president also directs the Pentagon and the State Department to come up with “a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding regions in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third country resettlement.”

It is unclear how the administration plans to define “safe zones” or how it plans to guarantee the safety of those in them.

Trump also calls for a tightening of visa procedures involving other countries. He would suspend the entry of people from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan for at least 30 days. Other countries that may also fall under such scrutiny are Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

According to a State Department official who reviewed the material, the president wants his secretaries of State and Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence assure him that the U.S. has sufficient information from the governments of those countries to vet their citizens.

But for several of the countries singled out, such cooperation is not realistic, and U.S. officials have long relied on other means to vet visa applicants from those nations. The United States and Iran, for example, do not have diplomatic relations, and Iranian citizens must travel to third countries to make their case for a visa to America.

The State Department official said the White House had done next to no consulting with his agency on whether the executive orders are legally tenable or what impact they would have on America’s alliances.

He pointed out, for example, that the drafts mention foreign nationals, but don’t clarify if that includes dual nationals. So a traveler with dual Libyan and French nationality, who could have traveled to the U.S. in the past on a French passport, may suddenly be barred.

“It’s f—ing nuts,” he said. “The lawyers are going to have to figure this out.”

The draft material does include exceptions for visas or refugee admissions if U.S. officials determine it is in the “national interest.” It’s unclear what that means, however, and whether it would extend to groups such as Afghan and Iraqi translators who have helped U.S. troops.

Trump’s focus on immigration-related security has its backers. John Kasich, the Republican Ohio governor who challenged Trump in last year’s presidential race, said a slowdown in the refugee program is “reasonable.”

“We got to make sure we know who’s coming here. We want to make sure that it’s orderly,” he said during a visit to the Dutch embassy in Washington. “But, you know, I don’t know that anyone can really at the end of the day settle down and think we don’t want to have refugees. That is certainly not my position.”

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon issued a harsh condemnation of Trump’s plans, calling it a “smokescreen for religious discrimination.”

 “Widows and orphans are not threats to our national security,” he said. “Muslim Iraqi interpreters put their lives at risk and have saved the lives of innumerable American service members. They have proven their loyalty. The true threat to our national security is surrendering the American values we stand for on the world stage and allowing ISIS to recruit more supporters through the false narrative that America is at war with Islam.”

He also called the “safe zones” language alarming. “Trump campaigned against intervention in the Middle East. If he’s changed his mind now that he’s in office, he should be upfront with the American people about his plans,” the senator said.

As word spread Wednesday of the planned moves on visas and refugees, many groups spoke out against them, with some raising questions of legality. Many also decried the heavy focus on Muslim-majority countries.

“As a nation founded by immigrants fleeing religious persecution, banning anyone based on their faith is wrong and contrary to our country’s most fundamental values,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of the legal advocacy group Muslim Advocates.