Blog  The Executive Order on Immigrants & Refugees: A Primer

The Executive Order on Immigrants & Refugees: A Primer

by Alexa Broida
Director, Mitzvah Corps

Over the weekend, President Trump signed an executive order that sparked a lot of national and global response. This story is rapidly evolving, so stay tuned, but here, we’ve broken down some context, what happened, what the response has been, and what you can do about it.

Some context, please!

An executive order is a rule handed down by the president to government agencies. While a signed executive order acts like a law, it can also be subjected to legal review, and reversed by Congress and/or the courts.

This particular executive order had to do with immigrants and refugees. There are a few key definitions to keep in mind:

  • A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country because of a well-founded fear that they will be persecuted due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
  • An immigrant is a person who was born in another country, but has been granted the right to live permanently in the United States. All immigrants are eventually issued a green card.
  • A nonimmigrant is a person who was born in another country, but has been granted the right to live temporarily in the United States. Nonimmigrants get a visa in one of several categories depending on why they’re coming, including to be a student or au pair.

So what happened?

On Friday, January 27, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order titled Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States, which outlined severe restrictions on refugees and immigrants:  

  • Total ban on any refugees coming to the United States for the next 120 days.
  • The United States will only allow 50,000 refugees to enter in 2017 (in 2016, the refugee cap was 110,000).
  • Priority will be given to refugees who identify with the religious minority, coming from majority-Muslim countries.
  • Total ban on any refugees from Syria coming to the United States until further notice (in 2016, the United States welcomed 12,486 Syrian refugees).
  • Total ban on any citizen from the following seven majority-Muslim countries coming to the United States on any visa category: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen.
  • Green-card holders from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen who live in the United States will need to meet with a consular officer before leaving the United States.
  • Green-card holders from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen who live in the United States but who were traveling out of the country when the executive order was signed would be permitted re-entry on a case-by-case basis.

The executive order was put into effect immediately, and almost immediately, caused some confusion, especially for people who reportedly found themselves in limbo:

  • There were questions about the status of green-card holders from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen who had been traveling out of the country when the executive order was signed. Members of the Trump administration said that they would be not be affected by the executive order, but that they would be subject to additional screening.
  • Some refugees from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen who had already been cleared and were on their way to the United States were detained in airports upon their arrival, and some were prevented from boarding flights to return to the Untied States.
  • Some college students from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen who are in the United States on nonimmigrant student visas, but had been traveling back home on winter break, found themselves unable to return to the United States.

Many people strongly objected to this executive order, including many Democratic leaders and even some Republican leaders, and thousands protested over the weekend at airports around the United States.

Meanwhile, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of two specific Iraqi men, Hameed Khalid Darweesh and Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, who had been traveling to the United States on immigrant visas when the executive order was signed, and were being detained at John F. Kennedy Airport. A judge ruled that people who are already at United States airports, or already in transit to United States airports, must be allowed to enter the United States, at least temporarily.

With the controversy around the legality of this particular executive order, it is inevitable that it will be challenged in court, and the Department of Justice will need to get involved. The Attorney General, who is the head of the Department of Justice, is responsible for representing the United States (not the President) in legal matters, and would be the person to either defend or look into the legality of the executive order. The person who holds this position is nominated by the President, and then confirmed by the Senate.

Since President Trump’s nominee, Senator Jeff Sessions, has not been confirmed yet, the acting (interim) Attorney General was Sally Yates, who had been appointed by President Obama. On Monday, January 30, 2017, Sally Yates instructed the Department of Justice lawyers not to make any legal arguments in defense of the ban on immigrants and refugees. President Trump then fired her for not being willing to defend his controversial executive order, and replaced her with Dana Boente, who had already agreed to enforce the executive order.

What are supporters saying?

President Trump and his supporters say that this executive action will provide extreme vetting, a necessary step toward national security, protecting our borders, and preventing terrorist attacks. They’ve defended the immediate implementation, saying that had they announced in advance, terrorists could have used that window to enter the United States with fewer restrictions.

Many supporters say that while they have compassion for refugees and immigrants, they pose a serious potential threat, and that these restrictions will allow for better vetting prior to allowing them into the United States. Additionally, President Trump has said that the countries listed are the same countries that President Obama’s administration had identified as sources of terror.

While Rudy Giuliani (one of President Trump’s top advisers and the former Mayor of New York City), said that President Trump had asked him to figure out how to do a “Muslim ban” legally, and had used those words, he insists that the order is legal, and that it is not a “Muslim ban,” but rather a ban based on threat of terror from certain countries.

With regards to the firing of Sally Yates, the statement from President Trump said that she had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States” and that she was “an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” Supporters say that if she wasn’t willing to fulfill President Trump’s order, she should have just resigned.

What are critics saying?

Those on the opposition argue that this is an immoral and illegal Muslim ban, a form of racial and religious discrimination that goes against American values and law. They believe that immigration is part of the foundation of America, and have invoked the Statue of Liberty’s Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor poem to underscore our obligation to welcoming refugees.

They say that while they appreciate the need to fight terrorism, the vetting process that already existed is extremely thorough; in fact, since 1975 the United States has welcomed nearly 3,250,000 refugees, only 3 of whom have carried out attacks, killing a total of 3 Americans. They fear that this executive order is unnecessary and will in fact have the opposite effect by fueling ISIS’s recruiting platform which says that the United States is at war with Islam, and weaken counterterrorism efforts with our Middle Eastern allies.

There are also questions being raised about the validity in the seven countries being affected: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. There have been no terrorist attacks in America by people from those countries since 9/11, and yet terrorist attacks that have killed Americans have been carried out by immigrants from countries not on the list, like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Some have pointed out that the countries left off the list are also countries within which President Trump has business deals.

Many people are calling Sally Yates a hero for standing up to President Trump, saying that her job is to represent the American people, even if she believes that contradicts an order from the President. In fact, in an ironic twist, in her 2015 Senate confirmation hearing, now-nominee for the same role of Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, specifically asked her if she thinks “the Attorney General has the responsibility to say no to the President if he asks for something that’s improper?” She replied, “I believe the Attorney General…has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the President.”

What is the Reform Jewish Movement saying?

On Saturday, January 28, 2017, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued a statement on behalf of the Reform Jewish Movement strongly condemning the executive order.

Invoking Leviticus 19:33-34, which states, ‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ the “Reform Movement denounces in the strongest terms the horrifying executive order on immigration and refugees issued late Friday evening by President Trump.”

They go on to “call on President Trump to rescind this abhorrent executive order. Every member of Congress must denounce its provisions, including the imposition of a religious test for entry, and urge its immediate repeal… In the days, weeks, and years that follow, we will work with our clergy, lay leaders, institutions, and congregations to provide assistance and support to immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and others yearning for the refuge and opportunity for a better life that we know the United States, at its best, can provide.”

What can I do to support the Reform Jewish Movement’s position, and oppose the executive order?

There are a number of things you can do:

  • Call President Trump to urge him to rescind the ban.
  • Find out where your Members of Congress stand on the ban, and call to either urge them to call for its immediate repeal, or thank them for doing so.
  • Refer to the Religious Action Center’s website to learn more about refugees and immigration.
  • Learn more about the global refugee crisis.
  • Donate to organizations working on behalf of refugees: ACLU, HIAS, International Rescue Committee, and more.
  • Contact your local refugee resettlement organization to find out how you can volunteer to help welcome refugees to your community. They often need volunteers to help set up homes that refugees will be moving into, help accompany refugees to appointments, and more.
  • Consider spending two weeks this summer with Mitzvah Corps Pacific Northwest, where you’ll put faces and names to the news articles and politics. Work with refugee children from countries including Syria, Iraq, and Sudan, welcoming them with open arms to our community.