Former President Barack Obama has released his first public statement since leaving office, criticizing President Donald Trump's sweeping executive order to curb immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and backing protesters who have, in recent days, taken to the nation's airports to support travelers who were detained. The former president ceded power to Trump just eleven days ago, and his statement breaks an unwritten rule that former presidents do not criticize their successors.
"Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake," he said in his statement through his spokesman, Kevin Lewis.
Trump has justified his order by comparing it to Obama's 2011 policy on refugees from Iraq. Obama's statement rejects this assertion, however, saying that he "fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion."
Fact checkers, such as Jon Finer, the Chief of Staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry and the director of policy planning at the State Department, noted several differences between Obama's policy and Trump's order:
- That Obama's 2011 policy, as Finer notes, did not “ban visas for refugees from Iraq for six months," as refugees do not travel on visas and "while the flow of Iraqi refugees slowed significantly during the Obama administration’s review, refugees continued to be admitted to the United States during that time, and there was not a single month in which no Iraqis arrived here."
- That the Obama administration's decision applied solely to citizens of Iraq and only to refugees and applicants for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), created by Congress to help Iraqis (and later Afghans) who supported the United States in their conflicts overseas.
- That the review was a response to information regarding a specific threat, specifically the arrest in Kentucky of two Iraqi refugees, which are "still the only terrorism-related arrests out of about 130,000 Iraqi refugees and SIV holders admitted to the United States."
- That the Obama administration's review was an "orderly, organized process" with, Finer notes, "over roughly a dozen deputies and principals committee meetings, involving Cabinet and deputy Cabinet-level officials from all of the relevant departments and agencies — including the State, Homeland Security and Justice Departments — and the intelligence community.
- That the purpose of the Obama administration's review "was to enhance the already stringent vetting to which refugees and SIV applicants were subjected." Iraqi and Syrian refugees wait 18-24 months for approval to enter the United States and are subject to repeated review from interagency officials.
Trump defended his executive order yesterday, saying America will "continue to show compassion to those fleeing oppression" but will "do so while protecting our own citizens and border... I have tremendous feeling for the people involved in this horrific humanitarian crisis in Syria. My first priority will always be to protect and serve our country, but as President I will find ways to help all those who are suffering."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also defended the executive order when asked for a response to Obama's statement. “It is a shame that people were inconvenienced obviously,” he said. “But at the end of the day we are talking about a couple of hours.”