Donald Trump faced mass protests and global outrage Sunday over his controversial ban on travelers from seven Muslim countries, facing the first real test of his nine-day administration.
The ban was criticised by allies, sparked confusion over its implementation and galvanized Democrats looking for a lightning rod to beat Trump. There was growing unease among Republican lawmakers as well.
Four federal judges moved to halt deportations, around 300 people were stopped or detained worldwide and US civil rights lawyers warned the battle could head to the Supreme Court.
Thousands of noisy demonstrators poured into the country’s major airports for the second day in a row to show support for immigrants and refugees impacted by Trump’s contentious travel restrictions.
“I just hope that we can pass this difficult period while maintaining our values as a country,” said Saif Rahman, a 38-year-old Iraqi-born US citizen who was called in for additional screening after flying into Dulles airport outside Washington.
Lawyers accompanied by interpreters set up shop in airports and fought for the release of those detained on arrival — many of them were in mid-air when Trump signed the decree.
The decree suspends the arrival of all refugees for at least 120 days, Syrian refugees indefinitely and bars citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.
At least 109 people were held upon arrival to the United States despite holding valid visas. It was unclear how many were still detained late Sunday.
Top Trump aides downplayed the number as “a couple of dozen” as Canada said it would offer temporary residence to those stranded in the country by the ban.
Under fire from all quarters, Trump issued an official White House statement to deny it was a Muslim ban and blast the media for its coverage.
“To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” he said.
The decision — which falls short of his 2015 promise on the campaign trail to ban all Muslims from coming to the United States — ignited the biggest controversy since he took office.
Trump then took to Twitter to blast Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, fellow Republicans who criticised the ban. He called them “wrong,” “weak on immigration” and “looking to start World War III.”
The real estate tycoon, who has never previously held elected office, sees himself making good on a key but highly controversial campaign promise to subject travelers from Muslim-majority countries to “extreme vetting” — which he declared would make America safe from “radical Islamic terrorists.”
The detention of travelers at US airports left families divided: a father was unable to reach his son’s wedding, and a grandmother unable to meet her grandchildren. Iran called the ban a “gift to extremists.”
Six Syrians were turned away from Philadelphia International Airport and sent back to Lebanon, a Beirut airport official said.
In New York, police estimated that 10 000 people gathered in protest at Battery Park across the river from the Statue of Liberty — America’s famed beacon of freedom and immigration.
“Refugees are welcome here!” demonstrators shouted, some holding up signs recalling the Holocaust that read “Never Again.” Trump signed the decree on Holocaust Memorial Day.
“It should send a chill down the spine of every American,” the city’s Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said as the crowd chanted “impeach” in reference to Trump.
Thousands more protested outside the White House.
“Taking a whole part of the world and saying you are not welcome here, you are our enemy, that invites violence. That’s not the American way,” said Tal Zlotnitsky, a software technology owner and dual US-Israeli citizen.
French-American national Sarah Diligenti added: “I hope this is a movement that lasts. I hope it’s not just a flash in the pan.”
Protestors also gathered at Washington’s Dulles Airport and airports in Los Angeles, Orlando and Sacramento. Hundreds demonstrated in Boston, with activists scheduling other rallies in Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City and Seattle.
While Trump cited the September 11, 2001 attacks in explaining his move, none of the 9/11 hijackers’ home countries – Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – were included in the measure. All of those countries are key US allies.
Uncertainty reigned over the ban’s implementation, with some green card holders from the targeted countries saying they had been turned back or prevented from boarding flights to the US.
But the Trump administration officially clarified late Sunday that the permanent residents would be exempt from the ban.
The order affected dual nationals, but not Canadian or US dual passport holders. Britain – one of several countries seeking clarification from Washington – said its nationals would not be subject to additional checks unless they traveled directly from one of the listed countries.
In addition to scathing criticism from abroad – from Tehran to Cairo to major European countries – Democratic and Republican lawmakers at home also hit out against the move seen by many as religious discrimination at the border.
Sixteen attorneys general from mostly Democrat-run states vowed to fight the order as unconstitutional.
Trump appeared to justify his order by writing on Twitter that Christians in the Middle East had been “executed in large numbers.”
“We cannot allow this horror to continue!” he tweeted to his nearly 23 million followers, making no mention of Muslims who have been killed in greater numbers.
Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and the subjects of “The White Helmets” an Oscar-nominated documentary, announced they would now not attend next month’s Academy Awards. – Agence France-Presse