US Homeland Security Secretary: 'This is not -- I repeat, not -- a ban on Muslims'

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. Picture: Getty Images

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a press conference on Tuesday that President Trump’s “extreme vetting” immigration order was “not a ban on Muslims.”

“This is not — I repeat — not a ban on Muslims,” Kelly told reporters. “Religious liberty is one of our most fundamental and treasured values.”

Kelly also insisted that the executive order was “not a travel ban,” but “a temporary pause that allows us to better review the existing refugee and visa vetting system.”

The US immigration system is “the most generous in the world,” Kelly said, but a new analysis of foreign nationals attempting to enter the US “is long overdue and strongly supported by the department’s career intelligence officials.”

Kelly added that the seven countries named in the executive order — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen — “are those designated by Congress and the Obama administration as requiring additional security when making decisions about who comes into our homeland.”

Trump and his aides have also insisted that the order is “not a Muslim ban,” and that it is designed to deter potential attacks on US soil. But experts have noted that the ban does not include countries that have posed serious terror threats in the past such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

The order cites the September 11, 2001 terror attacks three times as justification for the ban, but the 9/11 hijackers were from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon — none of which were included on the list of banned countries.

Reports emerged over the weekend that Department of Homeland Security staff were allowed to see the order only after Trump signed it, and National Security Council lawyers were prevented from evaluating it. The State Department and the DOD were also excluded from the process, NBC reported.

Kelly said on Tuesday that he knew the executive order “was coming,” but would not comment on whether he saw the full document before Trump signed it on Friday afternoon.

“People on my staff were generally involved” in drafting the order, Kelly said. “I did know it was under development, and had the opportunity to look at two drafts as it got closer to Friday. I didn’t get involved in correcting grammar or reformatting the thing.”

The acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Patrol said that 872 refugees will be allowed to enter the US this week “because of hardship concerns,” and that the agency has been “responding immediately to any court orders as did on Saturday night.”

Lawyers representing two Iraqi refugees who were detained at John F. Kennedy airport in New York filed legal challenges to the order, and a federal judge in Brooklyn issued an emergency ruling Saturday evening to stay the continued deportation of travellers.

The ruling, a temporary emergency stay, now allows those who landed in the US and hold a valid visa to remain. Federal judges in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Washington also made emergency rulings on various aspects of the executive order.

The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, ordered the Justice Department not to defend the immigration order on Sunday, but she was promptly fired and replaced by the White House.

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