President Trump's executive order sparks strong reaction at home and across the nation

Two Red Jacket student leaders, volunteers helping local refugees and one of the Rochester area’s largest providers of family services are among those speaking out against President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration.

The order, which drew local opposition as well from college leaders and Democrats representing the region in Washington, suspends admission of all refugees for 120 days. It also bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days.

House Speaker Paul Ryan defended Trump’s order, as did other House Republicans including Chris Collins and Tom Reed, who represent part of the Finger Lakes region and, between them, Ontario County. Ryan argued that while the rollout was bumpy — the action triggered mass confusion and chaos worldwide, split families and set off protests at airports across the country — the policy is consistent with Republican principles.

“I think it’s regrettable that there was some confusion on the rollout of this,” Ryan said, adding no one wanted to see legal permanent residents caught up in the immigration ban, which initially happened before the administration clarified that they should not be.

“Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our communities here in Western New York,” stated Collins in a release. “Temporarily suspending the admittance of refugees and individuals from high-risk countries until we can guarantee they are properly vetted is a common-sense measure focused on protecting Americans. President Trump promised to make America safe again and his executive order aims to ensure we know who is entering our country.”

Reed echoed the theme in a conference call Tuesday as reporters peppered him with questions. Reed said the order was about “keeping Americans safe.” He added the order is “very similar to bipartisan legislation, American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act,” which he supported, noting that bill “passed overwhelmingly” in the House in the last Congress.

“The legislation was passed at the behest of U.S. intelligence agencies following hearings which indicated the lack of records for refugees could be exploited by Al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists,” Reed said.

“We are still the land of the free that welcomes people,” Reed told reporters.

Anger and sadness

Alexandria Leto last year helped jumpstart Naples NY Refugee Action Committee. The group of Naples-area citizens supports refugees through Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services.

The United States admitted close to 90,000 refugees in 2016. About 800 of them — people who were forced to leave their homelands due to war, persecution, or natural disaster — came to Rochester. A nonprofit in the city, Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services, works to help refugees become financially and socially independent while still maintaining their cultural identity.

Leto said when she heard the order, she was angry. And sad. She sees it as discrimination and against America’s principles as a nation, and she doesn’t believe it will make America safer.

I think it will create more sadness and despair,” she said. She worries about how other countries will now view the United States, and she worries for the future of the refugees.

"How we treat people in need says a lot about our country," Leto said.

The Catholic Family Center, the sponsoring agency for all refugees resettled in Rochester, released a response to the order: “We at CFC see first-hand how our community is enhanced by the arrival of our newest Americans who come seeking peace and opportunity and through their diversity bring new color to the fabric of our community.”

The executive order “declares a contrary and dehumanizing view of refugees as a threat and unworthy of the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans," the statement continues. "It is a disavowal of our unique place in the world as a nation whose founding and historical essence are based on the idea that America provides safe haven to those suffering from violence and persecution.

“Our hearts go out to refugees around the world who had expected to escape the deprivation of a refugee camp and travel to America, possibly to join loved ones from whom they had been previously separated, but will learn today that they will remain for an indefinite period in precarious situations where their lives may be threatened."

The organization also urged “the community, people of faith and our political leaders to lend their voices in opposition to this directive so that we may restore America’s standing as a world leader in refugee protection and renew America’s promise to the world’s dispossessed.”

On Tuesday, two student leaders at Red Jacket High School took up the cause.

Juniors Ian Krager, president of the Red Jacket Class of 2018, and Olivia Spencer, Class of 2018 vice president, put out a statement to get students involved.

Ian said that although most high school students have not reached voting age, “we are citizens and we want to make a difference, to make our voices heard.”

Ian said he is disturbed by the innocent people who will be affected, “those who are trying to escape from persecution and war.”

“We are a land of immigrants,” said Olivia. She questions how the president can bar certain groups of people from entering our country based on their religion, country of origin and similar attributes.

Both students see the order as counter to what the United States stands for and hope to get other area students involved in protest. They also are thinking about a fundraising campaign to help local refugees.

Ian and Olivia said they were inspired by State University of New York student leaders who joined other groups in denouncing the order.

"The President's Executive Order halting the legal immigration and free movement of refugees and citizens of several Muslim-majority countries to enter our own, a country of immigrants, is discriminatory and wrong. We, the elected leaders from across the 64 campuses of largest system of public colleges and universities in the country, stand united in our shame of this hateful decision,” the SUNY students' statement read.

"The President's decision will stall progress on critical research, will prevent students from pursuing their education, and will forever leave a stain on the reputation of the values held dearly by this nation,” according to the statement that quoted the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

"Let us assure you, Mr. President, that these words are not empty. We will fight for justice and equality, and for the most fundamental freedoms that define American greatness. If you try to divide us, you will fail. If you attempt to discriminate, you will fail. If you seek to portray our incredible diversity as anything other than a strength, you will fail. Progress will always prevail."

The SUNY chancellor also issued a statement, saying, "As always, our commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion are unwavering. Our founding principles and support for undocumented students, restated by the SUNY Board of Trustees at its meeting last week, continue to guide our actions as we review and react to new federal mandates with regard to immigration.”

That statement said 320 students enrolled in the SUNY system come from the seven countries that are affected by the travel ban. It said SUNY is working to determine the potential impact that the executive order might have. Just to be safe, SUNY officials advised students from those countries to not travel home.

Making sense of it

In supporting the executive order, Reed emphasized what Trump and his aides are saying. They contend the order is not a Muslim ban because it does not affect several predominantly Muslim countries. They also argue it is similar to actions former President Obama took: In 2011, Obama instituted a six-month ban on refugees from Iraq, and in 2015 the Obama administration added a requirement that travelers have visas for entering the United States from the same seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

There are differences, though, between the Trump action and that of Obama. The 2011 action only affected one country and was in response to specific threat information about Iraqis seeking to use the refugee program to enter the United States and carry out terrorist acts. The 2015 action did tighten visa requirements for people entering from the seven countries, but the Obama administration never sought to bar them.

James Michael Valenti is an attorney and assistant professor of criminal justice at Finger Lakes Community College. He said that historically, administrations have had “pretty wide discretion with regard to immigration policy and vetting — and administrations have used these powers.” He mentioned past actions taken, in various degrees, under Obama and former President Jimmy Carter.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Trump administration said 872 refugees will be allowed into the United States this week despite Trump’s presidential order suspending the refugees program. Kevin McAleenan, the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said 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.

Meanwhile, the order has prompted legal aid organizations such as Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County to offer their services and do community outreach.

“Since the late 1970’s Syracuse has welcomed refugees into our community. A great many of these refugees have been Muslims. They have given a great deal to this city, both economically and culturally, and now more than ever we should stand with them. Our legal community has already begun to respond, providing “Know Your Rights” presentations, and we stand ready to provide legal assistance to those who need it,” stated a release from the Volunteer Lawyers Project.

“We have clients who are afraid of speaking out, of the retribution that might follow," stated Herve Comeau, an immigration pro bono coordinator with Volunteer Lawyers Project. "We are advising non-citizens from those seven countries listed in the order not to travel outside of the country, and asking them to make plans for the care of their children in the eventuality that they are barred from re-entering the country or detained. I’m a first generation immigrant to this country, and though I’m disheartened by the administration’s actions, I am incredible proud of the city’s response and the legal community’s support.” 

In Washington, New York's senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer have spoken out against the order. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, announced she joined more than 160 House Democrats in introducing legislation to defund and rescind the the order, saying “The Statue of Liberty Values Act states that President Trump’s Executive Order will have no effect or force of law and states that no funds or fees shall be used to implement the order.”

“I will not allow our refugee admission program to be decimated and refuse to sit quietly as the president implements a de facto Muslim ban,” stated Slaughter. “This is not who we are, and I will continue using all possible means to prevent this executive order from being implemented."

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Executive order explained

NO ENTRY: Trump’s executive order temporarily suspends all immigration for citizens of seven majority Muslim countries for 90 days. They are: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The order also calls for Homeland Security and State department officials, along with the director of national intelligence, to review what information the government needs to fully vet would-be visitors and come up with a list of countries that don’t provide it. The order says the government will give countries 60 days to start providing the information or citizens from those countries will be barred from traveling to the United States.

GREEN CARD HOLDERS AND DUAL CITIZENS: Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a statement Sunday declaring that, absent information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare, residency would be a “dispositive factor in our case-by-case determination.” That means citizens of the seven target countries who hold permanent U.S. residency “green cards” will not be barred from reentering the U.S., as officials had previously said. Officials also clarified Sunday that dual citizens who are nationals of one of the seven target countries and a country that’s not on the list will be subject to additional security screenings, but will likely be allowed through.

REFUGEES: Trump ordered a four-month suspension of America’s refugee program. The suspension is intended to provide time to review how refugees are vetted before they are allowed to resettle in the United States. Trump’s order also cuts the number of refugees the United States plans to accept this budget year by more than half, to 50,000 people from around the world. The temporary halt to refugee admissions does include exceptions for people claiming religious persecution, so long as their religion is a minority faith in their country.

SYRIA: Trump’s order directs the State Department to stop issuing visas to Syrian nationals and halts the processing of Syrian refugees. That will remain in effect until Trump determines that enough security changes have been made to ensure that would-be terrorists can’t exploit weaknesses in the current vetting system.

EXTREME VETTING: Trump’s order did not spell out specifically what additional steps he wants to see the Homeland Security and State departments add to the country’s vetting system for refugees. Instead he directed officials to review the refugee application and approval process to find any other security measures that can be added to prevent people who pose a threat from using the refugee program. During the Obama administration, vetting for refugees included in-person interviews overseas, where they provided biographical details about themselves, including their families, friendships, social or political activities, employment, phone numbers, email accounts and more. They also provided biometric information, including fingerprints. 

— The Associated Press