President Trump has signed an executive order banning Syrians from taking refuge in the United States, halting the U.S. refugee resettlement program for four months and temporarily blocking people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Signed on Friday, Holocaust Memorial Day, the decree suspends a directive that last year saved roughly 85,000 people displaced by war, political oppression, hunger and religious prejudice.
“We don’t want them here,” Trump said as he signed the order at the swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon for Secretary of Defence James Mattis.
There are already reports of people being turned away from US airports.
Former Vice President, Dick Cheney, the man who signed off on torturing detainees during the Iraq War, said in December any such move “goes against everything we stand for and believe in”.
Trump said the halt in the refugee program was necessary to give government agencies time to develop a stricter vetting system, reports the Associated Press.
The U.S. may admit refugees on a case-by-case basis during the freeze, and the government will continue to process requests from people claiming religious persecution, “provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country”.
The State Department said the three-month ban in the directive applied to Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen - all Muslim-majority nations.
Trump said: “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.
“We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”
In an interview with CBN News, Trump said persecuted Christians would be given priority in applying for refugee status.
“We are going to help them,” Trump said. “They’ve been horribly treated.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, said it would file a federal lawsuit Monday challenging the constitutionality of the executive order.
“There is no evidence that refugees - the most thoroughly vetted of all people entering our nation - are a threat to national security,” said CAIR National Litigation Director Lena F. Masri. “This is an order that is based on bigotry, not reality.”
As a candidate, Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration to the U.S. He later shifted his focus to putting in place “extreme vetting” procedures to screen people coming to the U.S. from countries with terrorism ties.
A total of 65 million people are displaced worldwide, about 21 million of whom are refugees, according to U.N. data, a number that hasn’t been seen since World War II.
The Syrian conflict alone has created more than 4.8 million refugees, most of whom are still stuck in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. An additional 6.6 million people are internally displaced.
Earlier in the day, he hosted Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House for his first meeting with a world leader since taking office.
Asked about whether he would revert back to Bush-era use of torture, Trump said he would defer to the views of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
“He has stated publicly that he does not necessarily believe in torture or waterboarding, or however you want to define it. ... I don’t necessarily agree,” Trump said. “But I would tell you that he will override because I’m giving him that power. He’s an expert.”