By Katie Bo Williams and Jordan Fabian - 03-06-17 11:30 AM EST
President Trump on Monday issued a new executive order on immigration that includes key changes meant to help it withstand the legal challenges that torpedoed his previous travel ban.
The new order removes Iraq from the list of Muslim-majority countries from which travel is temporarily banned, avoiding a major diplomatic spat with a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
It halts all refugee admissions to the U.S. for four months. The previous order, which was blocked by the courts, also contained that provision, but it indefinitely barred refugees from Syria.
The administration also struck language that would have given preference to religious minorities - such as Christians from the Middle East - once refugee resettlement resumes, according to a senior administration official. That provision gave fuel to critics who labeled the previous order a Muslim ban.
The new policy also provides clearer guidance on who is exempt from the ban. It does not affect legal permanent residents of the U.S. or people holding a valid visa at the time it was signed. Dual nationals using a passport from a country not on the list also do not fall under the ban, nor do foreign nationals traveling for diplomatic purposes.
Officials said the new order will go into effect on March 16, giving travelers, airlines and airports 10 days to prepare.
Immigrant-rights groups condemned the new order, calling the changes insignificant.
"This order is essentially religious discrimination masquerading, once again, in the language of national security," said Eleanor Acer, a senior director at the group Human Rights First. "The order targets people from Muslim-majority countries and will sharply reduce resettlement of Muslim refugees. Legal word-smithing cannot obscure the discriminatory intent and impact of the order."
The previous travel ban, signed one week after Trump's inauguration, took force immediately and did not contain clear language on who was affected. The move sparked widespread chaos at airports around the world as authorities struggled to implement the changes.
Hundreds of travelers en route to the U.S. were detained, sparking a wave of protests around the country. The courts moved quickly to place the policy on hold.
A federal judge in Washington state on Feb. 3 issued a nationwide ruling freezing the travel ban. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the lower court's order.
The decision was an embarrassing setback for the White House, which was criticized for a sloppy rollout that cut out key Cabinet officials and lawmakers on relevant committees.
The original order will be revoked when the new policy goes into effect in 10 days, despite the president's vow to fight the court's injunction.
The 10-day delay also stands in stark contrast to Trump's previous insistence that any advance notice or delay in implementing the ban would allow "bad dudes" to rush into the country.
Senior officials promised a smooth implementation of new order, saying that the White House was in close coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, State Department and other agencies in developing and drafting the policy.
Unlike the first signing, a Trump-staged photo-op at the Pentagon, the president signed the new order Monday morning with little fanfare.
- Sean Spicer (@PressSec) March 6, 2017
Trump left it Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to explain the new policy to the public.
In a brief press appearance that lasted less than 15 minutes, Tillerson, Kelly and Sessions stressed the threat posed by terrorism and defended the authority of the president to issue the ban. None of the three took questions.
While the new order relaxes some travel restrictions, administration officials argued it takes the same get-tough approach on people from countries it believes pose a terrorist threat to the U.S.
"This executive order provides a needed pause, so we can carefully review how we scrutinize people coming here from these countries of concern," Sessions said Monday.
A senior administration official said Iraq was exempt from the list because it received "firm commitments" from the government about its vetting and screening procedures for travelers.
Officials and outside groups had expressed concerns that keeping Iraq on the list would punish citizens who face danger in the country for working with U.S. military personnel as interpreters or in other roles.
The Iraqi government said Monday its exclusion from the new ban sends a "positive message" about its relationship with the U.S. as they collaborate in the fight against ISIS.
The new order also keeps the old policy's 50,000-person cap on refugees admitted to the country this year. The Obama administration resettled 110,000 refugees in the U.S. last year, a number that human-rights groups said was still too low.
The travel restrictions are needed, officials argued, to allow the administration to ensure vetting procedures are adequate to verify refugees and visa holders do not pose a threat to U.S. security. They provided few details on what criteria would determine adequacy and noted that at the end of the 90- or 120-day period, DHS and State may recommend countries to be included in a future suspension.
Senior administration officials vigorously defended the need for the order, with Sessions citing 300 active FBI anti-terror investigations into individuals admitted into the U.S. as refugees.
A senior Justice Department official said that the number was "global," but declined to provide specific information about the nationality of those 300 individuals - leaving it unclear how many are from the six nations on the list.
Under the order, the DHS will also begin publicizing data on the number of foreign nationals charged, convicted or removed from the U.S. based on terrorism-related activity, as well as the number of so-called honor killings in the U.S. by foreign nationals.
The 9th Circuit had dinged the government for failing to provide a factual basis for the policy. Critics have argued that no lethal terrorist attacks have been carried out on U.S. soil by nationals from the seven countries listed in the original ban since 9/11.
Officials insisted Monday that there was "nothing wrong" with the initial policy.
Sessions delivered a fierce defense of the president's authority in matters of national security in what appeared to be a rebuke of the Ninth Circuit. The court had pushed back on the Justice Department's claim that the president's rationale for the order should not be subject to court review.
"The Department of Justice believes that this executive order, just as the first, is a lawful and proper exercise of presidential authority," Sessions said. "The executive is empowered under the Constitution and by Congress to make national security judgments and to enforce our immigration policies in order to safeguard the American public."
The rollout of the new order comes after a weekend in which Trump made explosive allegations against his predecessor, saying former President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The claims, which were offered without evidence, created a major distraction for the administration and Congress as it looks to move forward on Trump's legislative agenda.
- This report was updated at 12:32 p.m.