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Homeland Security Chief Pushes Back Amid Confusion Over Trump Refugee Ban

Homeland Security Chief Pushes Back Amid Confusion Over Trump Refugee Ban

President Donald Trump’s executive order barring all refugees and many Muslim immigrants has sparked a furor at home and abroad. But Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly defended the action Tuesday, despite a spate of lawsuits and lingering confusion over who is affected by the ban.

Kelly, who had only been on the job six days when Trump signed the executive order last Friday, rejected media reports that he had been blindsided by the move and insisted he had properly reviewed the presidential directive before it was signed.

The order, which temporarily halted entry to all refugees and most travelers from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, has been carried out with “minimal inconvenience” to travelers and DHS workers had fully complied with court orders preventing further removals, Kelly told a news conference.

The retired general’s comments came after hundreds of people were caught in limbo at airports across the country and abroad, with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials sometimes contravening those court orders.

U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East, diplomats in the State Department, human rights groups and military veterans say the restrictions discriminate against Muslims and violate American values.  But Kelly said the order was not aimed at any religion.

“This is not — I repeat — this is not a ban on Muslims,” Kelly said at CBP headquarters in Washington. “Religious liberty is one of our most fundamental and treasured values.”

“We are and will remain in compliance with judicial orders,” Kelly continued, adding: “No member of the Homeland Security team knowingly ignored a court order.”

Although several federal judges across the country have issued emergency stays and several states have filed suits, U.S. immigration officials reportedly have obstructed the rulings in some cases, or even allegedly coerced some travelers to sign documents giving up green cards.

By late Tuesday, there was still disagreement over the number of people caught up in the ban. The White House has said just over 100 people were affected.

Acting CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said of the roughly 500,000 foreign nationals due to travel to the U.S. via air in the last 72 hours, some 721 people had been prevented from boarding planes to the United States, and waivers had been processed for more than 2,000 legal permanent residents and travellers with other valid visas. Nearly 900 refugees initially blocked by the order will be allowed into the U.S. and resettled this week, according to officials.

Though dozens of immigrants from Iraq, one of the banned countries, were barred from boarding flights to the United States and in at least one case physically removed despite having Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), Kelly and other top DHS officials said the executive order hadn’t been intended to serve as a blanket ban on legal permanent residents and those with SIVs.

“It’s fair to acknowledge that there have been communication problems with the public and the interagency,” McAleenan said when asked by Foreign Policy about the confusion.

When told that DHS claimed the order had never applied to SIV holders, Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), who wrote the law authorizing the SIV program and has criticized the directive, said, “How am I supposed to respond to that? … Somebody ought to tell the Iraqis.”

The New York Times reported that Trump signed the order even as Kelly received his first real briefing on it. According to former senior DHS and State Department officials, as well as current DHS employees, the executive order did not go through the typical inter-agency review process.

Still, Kelly and the White House on Tuesday pushed back against the report, saying the executive order had been reviewed by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel and top lawyers at the various departments charged with implementing the directive.

“I knew he was going to sign an order a year and a half, two years before he became president-elect,” Kelly said, referring to Trump’s campaign promises. From “day one,” he said, he was aware of “finishing touches” being put on an executive order and had seen at least two drafts prior to the order being signed Friday.

“It came to the department on a close-hold basis, only the people that needed to see it,” Kelly said, including himself, his chief, and department and White House lawyers. “I didn’t get involved in correcting grammar and re-formatting the thing,” the retired U.S. Marine general said.

Later in a testy press conference, White House spokesman Sean Spicer, accused reporters of calling Kelly a liar.

On Monday night, in addition to sacking the acting attorney general Sally Yates over her refusal to defend the order, the Trump administration also demoted and replaced the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That move followed McAleenan reportedly pushing out the chief of U.S. Border Patrol.

While turnover is common even among career civil servants during a presidential transition, critics said the swift removal of senior officials raised the specter of the constitutional crisis that occurred under President Richard Nixon in 1973.

Some Republicans in Congress offered muted criticism, such as Sen. Bob Corker, (R-Tenn.). The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the White House clearly had communication problems, whether intentional or inadvertent.

While the executive order’s implementation obviously had been flawed, Corker said, the administration may not be concerned: “It may be that this is the way they want to roll.”

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Staff