Two United Nations agencies called on the Trump administration on Saturday to keep on offering asylum to people fleeing war and persecution, describing its resettlement program as vital.
The United Nations refugee agency and International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the long-standing U.S. support for resettlement programs has offered a double benefit, “first by rescuing some of the most vulnerable people in the world and second by enabling them to enrich their new societies.”
The two agencies said in a cautiously worded statement that they hope the United States “will continue its strong leadership role and long tradition of protecting those who are fleeing conflict and persecution.”
U.S. President Donald Trump barred on Friday all refugees from entering the U.S. for four months hold and temporarily put a hold on travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries, saying the moves would help protect Americans from terrorist attacks.
“The needs of refugees and migrants worldwide have never been greater and the U.S. resettlement program is one of the most important in the world,” the two Geneva-based agencies said in a joint statement.
Trump stopped the entry of travelers from Syria and the six other nations – Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen – for at least 90 days, saying his administration needed time to develop more stringent screening processes for refugees, immigrants and visitors.
IOM and UNHCR said that they remained committed to working with the U.S. administration towards a shared goal of ensuring “safe and secure resettlement and immigration programs”.
“We strongly believe that refugees should receive equal treatment for protection and assistance, and opportunities for resettlement, regardless of their religion, nationality or race,” they said.
Resettlement places provided by every country for vulnerable refugees, some of whom require special medical treatment not available in their first country of asylum, are vital, the agencies said. More than 30 countries take part in the program, which starts with vetting by the UNHCR.
Some 25,000 refugees were resettled in the United States between October and year-end under UNHCR’s program for the most vulnerable, the agency said on Friday.
A host of U.S. federal government agencies are involved and extensive background checks are carried out, UNHCR spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci told a briefing.
“I think it’s fair to say that refugees coming into the United States to be resettled are some of the most vetted individuals entering the United States,” she said.
During his campaign, Trump tapped into American fears about ISIS militants and the flood of migrants into Europe from Syria’s civil war, saying refugees could be a “Trojan horse” that allowed attackers to enter the United States.
In December 2015, he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, drawing fire for suggesting a religious test for immigrants that critics said would violate the U.S. Constitution.
His idea later evolved into a proposal for “extreme vetting.”
Trump’s order also suspends the Syrian refugee program until further notice, and will eventually give priority to minority religious groups fleeing persecution.
Trump said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that the exception would help Syrian Christians fleeing the civil war there.
Legal experts were divided on whether this order would be constitutional.
“If they are thinking about an exception for Christians, in almost any other legal context discriminating in favor of one religion and against another religion could violate the constitution,” said Stephen Legomsky, a former chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration.
But Peter Spiro, a professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law, said Trump’s action would likely be constitutional because the president and Congress are allowed considerable deference when it comes to asylum decisions.
Trump’s order had been expected to include a directive about setting up “safe zones” for Syrian refugees inside the country, but no such language was included on Friday.
The order may also affect special refugee programs for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government as translators after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It is already affecting refugees and their families, said Jen Smyers of the Church World Service, a Protestant faith-based group that works with migrants.
Trump’s order sparked political fire, as democrats quickly condemned it as un-American, saying it would tarnish the reputation of the United States as a land that welcomes immigrants.
“Today’s executive order from President Trump is more about extreme xenophobia than extreme vetting,” said Democratic Senator Edward Markey in a statement.
On the other hand, some Republicans welcomed the move and praised it.
For instance, Republican Speaker Paul Ryan, who had roasted Trump’s original campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the United States, expressed some support on Friday.
“We are a compassionate nation, and I support the refugee resettlement program, but it’s time to reevaluate and strengthen the visa vetting process,” Ryan said.
“President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country,” Ryan said.
Also, Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, said ISIS has threatened to use the U.S. immigration system, making it important to do more screening.
“I am pleased that President Trump is using the tools granted to him by Congress and the power granted by the Constitution to help keep America safe and ensure we know who is entering the United States,” Goodlatte said in a statement.