To understand the order’s scope and potential impact, I spoke with Jennifer Gordon, a Fordham University law professor who specializes in immigration law. Our conversation has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Matt Ford: If I'm a Syrian refugee in a camp in Turkey, what should I expect if this draft executive order becomes official?
Jennifer Gordon: The current situation for Syrian refugees awaiting processing is that processing will come to a halt. There may be continued procedures within the camps, but as to admissions, the executive order stops them. There's also a 120-day suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for everybody, and during that period, no refugees are going to be admitted unless there's a special exception made.
Ford: How many refugees does the U.S. typically admit in a year?
Gordon: That depends on the president's designation. The numbers vary in recent years, but President Obama last year designated the number at 110,000. This executive order cuts that number to 50,000. 50,000 admissions a year is the lowest number since the Refugee Act of 1980. It's never been lower than 70,000, including in the years following 9/11, so that is a historic low in this executive order. The numbers have hovered since 9/11 around 70,000 to 80,000 admissions. President Obama had increased the numbers, but this is not just a cut in those numbers, it's a cut that's far out of line with refugee admissions for the past 30-plus years.
Ford: I noticed that there's also prioritization for refugees who face some sort of religious persecution after the 120-day period ends. Is that something that's unusual?
Gordon: Congress has acted at times to give priority to particular groups of refugees who are religious minorities, so that's not unheard of. And some of those priorities are already in effect, but this seems broader than the ones that are already in place.
Ford: Does Trump have the legal power to do what he's planning to do with this order under current U.S. law?
Gordon: Current U.S. law gives a president the power, in consultation with Congress, to set numbers and geographic areas for refugee admissions, so this doesn't appear to be out of line with that.
With regard to countries for which he's suspending the issuance of visas, there is a provision in the immigration laws that allows a president to make exactly such designations. The provision says that "whenever the president finds that the entry of any aliens, or the entry of any class of aliens, into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend...their entry."
So the question is would a challenge to that provision, particularly in the form that this was religious discrimination against majority-Muslim countries, would that stand? And that seems unlikely, given the legal standard under which the president's immigration actions are reviewed.