WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said 872 refugees will be allowed into the United States this week despite a presidential order suspending the U.S. refugees program.
Kevin McAleenan, the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said Tuesday that the refugees were already traveling and stopping them would cause "undue hardship." Their admission comes despite President Donald Trump's warnings that refugees like these, vetted under the Obama administration, were not adequately screened to ensure they are not potential terrorists.
The refugee ban was part of an executive order signed Friday by Trump that has stoked outrage and protests. Besides the 120-day ban for refugees, the order also bans entry to the United States from citizens of seven majority Muslim countries and indefinitely bars travel by Syrians to the U.S.
At a news briefing with McAleenan, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the travel ban for the seven countries may be extended and other countries could also be added to the list.
"I would be less than honest if I told you that some of those countries that are currently on the list may not be taken off the list anytime soon," Kelly said. "They're countries that are in various states of collapse" and may not be able to verify that people applying to come to the United States are who they say they are.
In his first briefing with reporters since he was confirmed, Kelly defended Trump's order and said its intention is to keep would-be terrorist out of the United States and not serve as a ban on Muslims. Early in his campaign, Trump had called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Kelly said "the vast majority of the 1.7 billion Muslims that live on this planet, the vast majority of them have, all other things being equal, have access to the United States."
The troubled rollout of the immigration and travel order prompted an interagency phone call on Monday, according to two U.S. officials. Participants included top Trump advisers Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, along with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon.
The officials said Kelly and Shannon told the White House they would take the lead in clearing up the situation. One of the officials said Bannon and Miller agreed to let the agency leaders take the lead after prodding from Flynn, Trump's national security adviser.
Kelly had a briefing Tuesday, in which he sought to clarify the extent of the new refugee and immigration and travel restrictions. The State Department, meanwhile, issued coordinated guidance to embassies and consulates overseas. The officials weren't authorized to speak publicly about internal government discussions and demanded anonymity.
Kelly, a retired Marine general, also said the order was "not a travel ban" but a "temporary pause that allows us to better review the existing refugee and visa- vetting system."
White House Sean Spicer made that point too in his daily briefing to reporters. But Trump referred to it as a "ban" in a tweet Tuesday defending the decision not to provide advanced notice to travelers. Spicer also called it a ban on Monday.
"If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the 'bad' would rush into our country during that week," Trump wrote. "A lot of bad 'dudes' out there!"
The rollout of the order has been widely criticized, a point McAlleenan conceded, saying communication among government agencies had "not been the best."
But he said the refugees' waivers were being done in concert with the State Department. He said the refugees would be processed through the end of the week.
According to guidance provided to some refugee aid agencies by the State Department none of the refugees are from the seven countries singled out for an all-out travel ban. Those countries are Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Libya.
Kelly denied reports that he had been out of the loop in the White House planning for the immigration restrictions.
Kelly told reporters he looked at two drafts of the order before the Friday signing and that high-level government lawyers and agency officials were involved in drafting it. He didn't provide names of who was involved in the initial planning, but said the group included people from Trump's transition team. Kelly also said he knew the order was coming because Trump had long talked about it as a candidate.
People who know Kelly, however, told The Associated Press that he was not aware of the details in the directive until around the time that Trump signed it.