US President Donald Trump's Administration plans to start vetting would-be immigrants and visitors to the United States based partly on their opinions and ideology, and will immediately cease the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, according to a draft executive order leaked today to civil rights advocates.
The order, if enacted, would signal the beginning of the "extreme vetting" that President Trump promised on the campaign trail, as well as partial implementation of the "Muslim ban," according to civil rights advocates.
The order calls for an immediate 30-day halt to all immigrant and nonimmigrant entry of travellers from certain countries whose citizens "would be detrimental to the interests of the United States". Once signed, it would allow even those with visas to be turned away at US airports and other entry points.
The countries - designated under several provisions of law that have already singled them out for terrorism links - include Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia. While all are Muslim-majority countries, the list - and the ban - do not include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and numerous other Muslim-majority countries.
Additionally, all refugee admission and resettlement would be halted for 120 days - and until further notice, from Syria - while reviews of vetting procedures are conducted. Once restarted, annual refugee admissions from all countries would be cut from the currently authorised level of 100,000 to 50,000.
Asked about the draft, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said actions dealing with refugees and other US admissions would be signed later in the week, and "as we get into implementation of that Executive Order, we will have further details." Trump's "guiding principle," he said, is to prevent entry to "people who are from a country that has a propensity for doing harm."
Civil rights and refugee advocates immediately expressed alarm over the policies, and said that the news has thrown groups that handle refugee resettlement and immigrant rights - including UN agencies - into disarray.
"These actions taken by Donald Trump are tantamount to a Muslim ban," Abed Ayoub, the Legal and Policy Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said during a conference call with refugee and immigrant advocates and journalists. "Regardless of how they try to frame it . . . this is the Muslim ban that was promised by him on the campaign trail."
In justifying its actions, the order states that "hundreds of foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001."
Most terrorist or suspected terrorist attacks since 9/11 have been carried out by US citizens. The 9/11 hijackers hailed primarily from Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon - all US allies, and none of which would be affected by the immediate ban.
Since the emergence of Isis (Islamic State) in 2014, federal prosecutors have also charged 106 people in connection with the group, many of them for planning to travel to Syria or Iraq to join it. It is unclear how many were foreign-born.
Along with ending all Syrian refugee resettlement "until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes" have been made to vetting programmes, Trump's order directs the secretaries of state and defence to deliver within 90 days a plan to provide "safe areas" inside Syria and "in the surrounding region" where displaced Syrians can await "firm resettlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement."
Waivers to the ban on refugees and overall priority for admission would be given to those claiming religious persecution, "provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality".
Some Republican lawmakers have called for special protection for Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities fleeing Isis, although the vast majority of those killed and persecuted by the militants are Muslims.
Additional provisions under the order, entitled "Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals," would require all travellers to the United States to provide biometric data on entry and exit from the country, instead of current entry-only requirements. It would immediately suspend a waiver system under which citizens of certain countries where US visas are required do not have to undergo a face-to-face interview at a US consulate.
The entry-exit requirement resembles provisions previously in place under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), the registry programme that targeted mostly Muslim men and which the Department of Homeland Security ultimately found to be redundant with existing protocol, and ineffective for identifying terrorists.
Shortly before leaving office, President Barack Obama dismantled the legal framework for the NSEERS programme, which had been abandoned in 2011, to make it more difficult for Trump to revive it as part of his campaign proposal to create a Muslim database.
But Shoba Wadhia, a clinical professor of law at Penn State University and the director of its Centre for Immigrants' Rights Clinic and who has studied NSEERS, described the draft executive order's provisions as "NSEERS on steroids."
"It definitely far exceeds what we saw with NSEERS," she said. "NSEERS itself was a complete disaster. It had no security value; it really overwhelmed government offices and officials who were unprepared."
The president has broad authority to control who comes into the United States, legal experts say. A key question for US courts, if the order is challenged, will be whether the new policies exceed the reasonable boundaries of the president's executive authority on immigration or violate portions of the Constitution, legal experts say.