President Donald Trump has taken executive action to implement stricter vetting measures aimed at screening out "radical Islamic terrorists" and that could sharply limit refugees from Muslim-majority countries.
Referring to terrorists, the president said, "We don't want them here." He signed his executive order on immigration at the Pentagon on Friday, adding he only wants to admit those to the United States who wholeheartedly support the country.
Trump had pledged through his presidential campaign to sharply limit immigration and impose "extreme vetting" of those entering the U.S.
Details of the executive order were not immediately released, but AP obtained a draft that called for suspending the issuing of visas for at least 30 days to those from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
According to the draft order, the administration would also effectively suspend all refugees from coming into the U.S. for at least 120 days. But Syrian refugees would be barred indefinitely.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement late Friday condemning the president's order as one unfairly targeting refugees, including children.
"There is no evidence that this approach will improve national security," Garcetti said.
Refugees arriving in Southern California from Syria, where a civil war has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, as well as refugees from other Muslim-majority countries have settled largely in San Diego in the past year, according to federal statistics.
Syrians settling in Southern California have been aided by federally designated refugee organizations, and by churches and community groups that help the refugees find housing and work.
Mahmoud Tarifi, who works with the Islamic Center of Claremont that aids Syrian refugees, sees any Trump order on refugees as a slap in the face of people who have already encountered hardship.
“God help us,” Tarifi said. "They suffered in their native country. They suffered in the country they were refugees in. They drowned in the seas. They were raped and abused and kidnapped and killed…and now we are going to say we’re going to block their entrance to the United States?”
2016 Refugee Entries to California, Southern California
|Iran||2,275||1,313 (majority to Glendale)|
|Iraq||1,697||442 (majority to El Cajon, in San Diego County)|
|Somalia||300||280 (majority to San Diego)|
|Sudan||31||24 (majority to San Diego)|
|Syria||1,748||1,134 (majority to San Diego)|
Source: U.S. State Department
More than 12,000 Syrian refugees came to the U.S. in fiscal year 2016, and many others remain in the pipeline. California, along with Michigan, is a top destination for Syrian refugees. While most of those who settled in Southern California went to San Diego, some have settled in the Los Angeles area, Orange County and the Inland Empire.
Others who could be suspended from legal entry for at least four months include refugees from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, according to the draft order.
Aside from refugees, entry by other immigrants from the seven countries could be halted for 30 days while the U.S. works on increasing its screening.
Altogether, relatively few refugees from the nations singled out in the draft order have settled in California in the past year. The biggest groups have been Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians. Last year, 1,697 Iraqi refugees came to California, many settling in El Cajon, east of San Diego. And 2,275 refugees from Iran arrived, more than half settling in the L.A. suburb of Glendale.
Three hundred Somali refugees arrived in California last year with all but a handful settling in the San Diego area. Thirty-one arrived in the state from Sudan, and three from Yemen. None arrived from Libya.
Although the numbers of refugees from these countries aren’t staggering, they are still too many for some critics of the current refugee program.
"We would like to see a refugee policy that is consistent with a population that will be stabilized, and not continuously getting larger," said Joe Guzzardi with Californians for Population Stabilization, a immigration-restriction advocacy group. "What are the resources that the communities that are receiving these refugees have? Do they have the space in the schools? Do they have the space in the hospitals?"
Trump's order for "extreme vetting" of refugees comes despite U.S. State Department officials' statements in the past that screening is already intense. The current reviews include security screening by multiple agencies, including Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center, and interviews with federal officers.
It's not clear what other kinds of questioning or screening will take place under the heavier scrutiny directed by the executive order.
Because refugee admissions fall under the executive branch of government, admission restrictions are difficult to challenge, immigrant advocates said Friday.
However, Muslim community organizations said they were bracing to legally assist refugees and other Muslims who live in the U.S. if they are targeted by federal actions.
"We can't reverse this [possible] executive order," said Edina Lekovic with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group. "But we're having folks ring the alarm bell that this is a signal of what is to come, and planting our feet firmly that we are prepared for this. We can challenge what comes next."
Other actions impacting Muslims could roll out from the Trump administration in the days ahead.
During his campaign, Trump floated the idea of a Muslim registry. The U.S. established a registry for non-citizen visa holders from predominantly Muslim nations following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System or NSEERS. The controversial program, which prompted civil liberties complaints, was discontinued in 2011.
This story has been updated.