President Trump on Saturday denied that his sweeping executive order barring refugees and individuals from several predominantly Muslim nations amounted to a ban on Muslims.
“It’s not a Muslim ban,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office after he signed three new directives.
The order, handed down Friday evening, sowed chaos as government agencies scrambled to implement the broad new policy.
But Trump insisted his administration was “totally prepared” to carry out the refugee and travel ban, which affects more than 100 million people around the world.
“It’s working out very nicely,” he said. “You see it at the airports, you see it all over.”
The new policy sparked widespread outrage from civil-liberties groups and Democrats, who called it a discriminatory and unconstitutional policy directed at Muslims.
The Trump administration has already found itself embroiled in a legal battle over the order after two Iraqi nationals with ties to the U.S. military filed a lawsuit after they were detained upon their arrival Friday night in New York.
Both men had been granted visas to enter the U.S. Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military, was released from custody early Saturday.
The president said he is sticking with the new policy over the objection of its critics, saying it will help keep out people who could carry out terrorist attacks on American soil.
“We’re going to have a very, very strict ban and we’re going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country for many years,” he said.
Trump’s order bars Syrian refugees indefinitely and halts the country’s refugee resettlement program for four months.
It also denies entry for 90 days to individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya; affecting roughly 134 million people.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has designated those nations as “countries of concern” for terrorism.
The order also directs DHS to determine which other nations do not provide appropriate information about its citizens, and therefore could be added to the list.
Despite Trump’s claims, critics of the policy say it amount to a ban on Muslims.
“Mr. President, look at us – this is America, what you have done is shameful, it’s un-American and it has created so much confusion,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) while standing outside of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the two Iraqi men were detained.
They point to Trump’s Dec. 2015 call for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration to the U.S. He later softened his stance, saying he wanted to target individuals from terror-prone nations.
The ban does not cover all Muslim-majority countries or Muslims worldwide.
The nations where the Sept. 11 hijackers hailed from — Saudi Arabia, Egypt the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon — are not included on the list. Neither is Pakistan, the home of the 2010 Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
But some of the president’s most ardent backers still referred to the order as a Muslim ban.
“Making America Great Again! #MuslimBan #saturdaymorning #AmericaFirst @GenFlynn @realDonaldTrump” tweeted Michael Flynn, Jr., the son of Trump’s national security adviser.
Making America Great Again! #MuslimBan #saturdaymorning #AmericaFirst @GenFlynn @realDonaldTrump https://t.co/fyn6JYpJf9
— Michael Flynn Jr (@mflynnJR) January 28, 2017
Trump also said in an interview Friday he wants to prioritize Christian refugees from the Middle East over Muslims once admissions resume.
There was additional confusion over the implementation of the order.
Multiple media reports indicated senior officials at the State Department and DHS, the agencies charged with carrying out the ban, were not aware of the changes before Friday.
Travelers and refugees at airports around the world were grounded as authorities scrambled to interpret the new travel restrictions, including whether they applied to U.S. permanent residents from the affected countries.
A senior administration official later said green-card holders currently abroad do fall under the ban, although they would be considered on a case-by-case to return.
More broadly, the White House pushed back on reports of miscommunication, saying key officials at both agencies has been informed of the plans over the past few weeks.
Asked whether the government was ready to put the order in place, Trump replied, “totally, totally.”
–Nikita Vladimirov contributed