WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump was reportedly poised to suspend the US refugee program for four months and to halt visas for travellers from seven Muslim countries — moves that could come as early as Thursday.
According to a draft executive order published in US media, including the Washington Post, refugees from war-torn Syria will be indefinitely banned.
The broader US refugee admissions program will be suspended for 120 days while senior officials draw up a list of countries deemed not to pose a risk.
Meanwhile, all visa applications from countries deemed a terrorist threat — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen — will be halted for 30 days.
Alongside this, the Pentagon will be ordered to take 90 days to draw up a plan to set up “safe zones” in or near Syria where refugees from its civil war can shelter.
It is not clear whether the published draft is the final version, nor when Trump will formally sign it, but it would make good on his campaign promises.
“Look, the president has talked extensively about extreme vetting,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters, promising “more action this week.”
Spicer said Trump wanted to ensure travellers were coming to the United States for “the right reasons,” especially if they are from areas of concern.
Spicer would give no details of the order, but the apparent draft reflected his explanation.
Playing into IS hands?
Trump’s hardline attitude towards what he calls “radical Islamic terrorism” was one of the most controversial themes of his election campaign.
Rights groups have accused him of stigmatizing a global faith, and some experts warn that offending America’s Muslim allies will hurt the fight against extremism.
But Trump’s vow to “eradicate ISIS from the face of the earth” proved popular with American voters, and measures to halt refuge arrivals remain a White House priority.
“Turning our back on vulnerable refugees doesn’t protect the United States,” said Michael Olsen, former director of the US National Counterterrorism Center.
“In fact, it plays into ISIS’s false narrative that we are at war with all Muslims instead of terrorist organizations,” he told watchdog Human Rights First.
Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, told the group that the order would threaten refugees who risked their lives to help US troops.
“Banning the admission of Syrian refugees contradicts American values, undermines American leadership and threatens American security by making the ISIS case that we are at war with Islam,” he argued.
No ‘major negative’ in Trump refugee plan
Other former officials, however, were unworried by the pending order — suggesting that, while it has little use as a security measure, anger would blow over.
James Jeffrey, who was deputy national security adviser under former president George W. Bush, said: “I don’t think there’ll be much of a change in anything.”
Jeffrey argued that even under former president Barack Obama, the United States had allowed in very few Syrian refugees — only 18,000 since the war began in 2011.
Meanwhile, allies in the Sunni Muslim world are far more concerned by the immediate threats posed by Iran and the Islamic State group than by US visa law.
“So I don’t see a major negative in foreign affairs from this,” said Jeffrey, now a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“We had a bad reputation no matter what we did even when we were being at our very very tippy-toe best with Barack Obama. It doesn’t matter,” he told AFP.
“In populations there is a great deal of skepticism about the United States. It’s hard-wired, regardless of the president, no matter what we do.”
The possible draft signing on Thursday would be the latest in a daily series of executive orders rolled out by Trump’s administration since he took office on Friday — touching on national security, immigration, and health care.
Also on Thursday, he is to speak before Republican lawmakers at their winter retreat in Philadelphia — an opportunity for him to reassure some of his party faithful about the actions of his provocative first week at the White House.