WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Sunday vigorously defended President Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions, as protests against the order spread throughout the country. Some Republicans in Congress publicly opposed the changes amid legal challenges to the order banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, though top congressional Republicans remain largely behind the new president.
In a background call with reporters, a senior administration official declared the order’s implementation “a massive success story,” claiming it had been done “seamlessly and with extraordinary professionalism.”
But there was confusion at airports around the world, and late Sunday the administration appeared to walk-back how the order would apply to certain groups, like legal permanent U.S. residents.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a statement Sunday saying that, absent information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare, residency would be a “dispositive factor in our case-by-case determination.” That means citizens of the seven countries who hold permanent U.S. “green cards” will be allowed to re-enter the U.S. Officials had previously said they would be barred from returning. It remains unclear what kind of additional screening they will now face.
Trump’s order, which also suspends refugee admissions for 120 days and indefinitely bars the processing of refugees from Syria, sparked widespread protests and denunciations from Democrats and a handful of Republicans. Many have accused the administration of rushing to implement the changes, resulting in panic and confusion at the nation’s airports.
“You have an extreme vetting proposal that didn’t get the vetting it should have had,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who urged the new president to “slow down” and work with lawmakers on how best to tighten screening for foreigners who enter the United States.
“In my view, we ought to all take a deep breath and come up with something that makes sense for our national security” and reflects the fact that “America’s always been a welcoming home for refugees and immigrants,” he said.
Several Democrats in Congress said they would introduce legislation to stop the ban.
The top Democrat in the Senate says the Trump administration’s implementation of the executive order on immigration “raises serious doubts” about its competence.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is criticizing the order and he is vowing to reverse it. He calls it counterproductive, dangerous and un-American.
The order sowed chaos and confusion at airports as officials initially barred permanent U.S. residents with “green cards” from re-entering the country, then said they would be allow to enter.
During a round of Sunday show interviews, Trump’s aides stressed that just a small portion of travelers had been affected by the order and emphasized its temporary nature.
“I can’t imagine too many people out there watching this right now think it’s unreasonable to ask a few more questions from someone traveling in and out of Libya and Yemen before being let loose in the United States,” Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said. “And that’s all this is.”
As of Sunday afternoon, one legal permanent resident had been denied entry to the country as a result of the order, according to a federal law enforcement official. The official was not permitted to discuss the order’s impact publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said the changes were “a small price to pay” to keep the nation safe.
But it’s unclear whether the order will accomplish that. It does not address homegrown extremists already in America, a primary concern of federal law enforcement officials. And the list of countries in Trump’s order doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, where most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were from.
Priebus said that other countries could be added to the list. Trump spoke by phone Sunday with leaders from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Neither country is among the seven specified in Trump’s order.
The president, meanwhile, defended his actions, insisting it was “not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting.”
“This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” he said.
Trump also said he has “tremendous feeling” for the people fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria and vowed to “find ways to help all those who are suffering.” The White House said later that King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, had both agreed to support safe zones for refugees, but offered no further details.
The developments came a day after a federal judge in New York issued an emergency order temporarily barring the U.S. from deporting people from the seven majority Muslim nations subject to Trump’s 90-day travel ban.
The court barred U.S. border agents from removing anyone who arrived in the U.S. with a valid visa from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. It also covered anyone with an approved refugee application.
The Department of Homeland Security on Sunday said the court ruling would not affect the overall implementation of the White House order.
“President Trump’s executive orders remain in place — prohibited travel will remain prohibited, and the U.S. government retains its right to revoke visas at any time if required for national security or public safety,” the department said in a statement.
Top congressional Republicans, meanwhile, were backing Trump despite concerns raised Sunday from a handful of GOP lawmakers and condemnation from the Koch political network, which is among the most influential players in the conservative movement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he supports more stringent screening, though he cautioned that Muslims are some of the country’s “best sources in the war against terror.”
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, expressed fear that the order could “become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.”
“This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security,” they wrote.
Trump fired back on Twitter, calling the pair “sadly weak on immigration.”
Priebus was on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation,” Portman was on CNN’s “State of the Union,” while McConnell appeared on ABC’s “This Week.”
Associated Press writers Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Steve Peoples in Palm Springs, California, contributed to this report.