Chicago immigration reform advocates and Muslim leaders denounced President Donald Trump’s executive order to temporarily block refugees coming to the U.S. while the government reviews screening processes, calling it an effective ban on Muslims in America.
In issuing the order Friday, which calls for a four-month halt on all refugee admissions, an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and a temporary moratorium on immigrants from countries that don’t comply with security procedures, Trump said he seeks to protect the nation from terrorist attacks. He called for a review of all screening procedures for those seeking immigrant visas to the U.S.
“I am establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” Trump said. “We don’t want them here.”
“He can call it what he wants,” said Lawrence Benito, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “As we see it, it’s a backdoor ban on Muslims.”
Supporters of tougher immigration policies praised the plan as a sensible safety measure that balances the interest of refugees with the country’s need to prepare for a credible emerging threat.
Opponents say the order undermines the nation’s reputation in the Middle East and threatens the security of Americans at home and abroad by giving extremists evidence that the U.S. alienates and discriminates against Muslims.
Locally, the volunteer group RefugeeOne had planned to welcome a family from Syria on Monday, said Alisa Wartick, an organizer for the Chicago-based group. Since November, volunteers have been working to sponsor the family, who currently live at a Turkish refugee camp.
A statement on the refugeeone.org website reads:
“We are devastated by President Trump’s executive action halting the resettlement program. In the next 3 weeks, 15 families including 14 children, were scheduled to arrive at O’Hare. These refugees from the DR Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Uganda, were to be welcomed by RefugeeOne and their co-sponsors.
“Today, their hopes of rebuilding their lives in America were shattered.”
Late Friday, organizers were notified that the family will not travel to America as planned, given the executive action.
“We’re unsure if they will ever be allowed to come,” Wartick said. “There is a complete Syrian ban.”
The group had been raising money and collecting items since identifying the family, Wartick said. Last week, the family’s fully furnished apartment in Skokie was finally ready.
Now, the husband, 34, his 23-year-old wife and 16-month-old daughter will remain at the Turkish camp, where some people have been since 2013. The wife’s parents and siblings have been living in Chicago since the fall, Wartick said. Her family has members who have earned college degrees.
“They were running from terrorism, they are not the people we are being told to fear,” Wartick said.
“I know there are legal challenges to this executive order that is just a blanket order to target certain countries. It doesn’t do what it’s thought to do and that is to prevent terrorism.”
It wasn’t known Saturday whether any potential immigrants were being detained at O’Hare, but in New York, two men from Iraq were detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport and representatives of the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Trump’s executive order.
Wartick said she said she hopes the order is found illegal and unenforceable.
“These families are real people and not who we should be scared of. They have already been through the 18- to 24-month vetting process. This is just ridiculous.”
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a former president of the Syrian American Medical Society and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, came to the U.S. in 1989 to continue his medical training at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with the intention of going back. Instead he met his wife, an American citizen of Syrian origin, and began working at St. Anthony Hospital on the West Side.
Sahloul, a Syrian-born physician who lives in Burr Ridge, said of the executive order: “Every American should challenge it because it will jeopardize our own security and it’s against all American values.”
The order “will paint Islam as an enemy,” added Sahloul, now an American citizen who has gone on two dozen medical missions to the Middle East since the start of the Syrian conflict. “Whether President Trump understands that or not, that has to be determined. It will put any American traveling in the world at risk.”
The flow of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria into other countries increases the chances of them winding up in the U.S. and becoming homegrown terrorists, said James Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank.
“We all know we’re looking for a needle in the haystack,” said Carafano, who advised the Trump transition team on State Department and homeland security issues. “You do want to make sure your screening processes are pretty strong. … I acknowledge this might create an additional hardship for some refugees, but from a practical perspective it takes two years now. So if there’s a pause or additional measures that stretch it to 100 or 200 days, it’s hard to argue if you think you’ll stop a terrorist attack, that it’s an undue burden.”
At a news conference Friday, Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Chicago, said refugees and others seeking haven in the United States “don’t choose to leave” but are forced out by persecution or violence.
“When they are at the doors of places where they can seek mercy, compassion, life, they’re turned away in many other countries, and now as well in the United States, only by a signature on paper by the president,” he said. “This is not about vetting. This is about religious discrimination and codifying it into law, and as such we stand against it.”
The order does allow exceptions for refugees who claim religious persecution as long as they practice a minority religion in their home country. It’s unclear if the exception only applies to non-Muslims, a key point in Syria, where mostly Sunni Muslim refugees have been displaced by conflict between a regime-backed Shiite minority and Sunni rebels.
Huda Hidar, 43, fled war-torn Syria with her daughter and four sons and arrived in Evanston last summer. She worries that the new restrictions might make it harder for other refugees like them to escape the Middle East.
“We are not doing anything, not terrorism or anything. Why would he ban us?” she said through an interpreter. “We are coming to a country of safety. We want to secure our children’s safety and future, most importantly, in a safe country.”
Hidar’s hijab covers a long, deep scar along the left side of her face, which she said was carved out by shrapnel from an airstrike in May 2013 that demolished her suburban Damascus home while she was preparing hummus in the kitchen. While in a Jordan hospital, she stayed in touch with her 18-year-old son via cellphone. Then one day, she couldn’t reach him: She said she learned from a relative that her son and husband were killed in a chemical attack.
She’s afraid that her four brothers, three sisters and many nieces and nephews who still live in fear in the Middle East won’t be able to find refuge as her family has. She also worries that her children won’t be allowed to stay in their Evanston home and schools and continue enjoying a long-sought sense of normalcy.
“I am afraid we would have to go back,” Hidar said. “I wish for the safety of my kids and for all people.”
Nearly 85,000 refugees from around the world were admitted to the U.S. in fiscal year 2016, a majority of them Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center. Former Secretary of State John Kerry had projected the U.S. would accept up to 100,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017. Trump’s order reduces the number of refugees the U.S. will admit this fiscal year to 50,000.
Carafano said that number is based on how many can be processed safely and efficiently. The reduction is not intended to lessen the importance of resettling refugees.
“The fact that we have a refugee program, that’s a statement about who we are. It’s a humanitarian gesture to show our respect for human rights and human suffering, our beliefs in being generous and loving. It’s a statement of who America is,” he said. “Because we do it differently or more stringently, that doesn’t change that sentiment.”
Benito, the advocate for refugees, acknowledged that visa procedures could benefit from a closer look, but he said halting refugee admissions while reviewing those screening procedures is unnecessary and unjust. The nation’s yearslong vetting process for refugees already is one of the most rigorous, he said.
“We believe the process is working and we should be admitting more refugees, not less,” Benito said.
Sahloul said the nation’s president not only should provide wise leadership when it comes to education and the economy, but also should provide moral leadership. This executive order does not meet that expectation, he said.
“Most of these refugees coming from Syria, they went through extreme violence,” Sahloul said. “They witnessed family members killed by the regime or an extremist group and were displaced multiple times inside Syria and Lebanon and refugees camps. To shut the door in their faces is inhumane.”
Tribune reporter Deanese Williams-Harris contributed.