Obama, Out of Office 10 Days, Speaks Out Against Immigration Ban
By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS
JAN. 30, 2017
Photo: President Barack Obama during his farewell address in Chicago on Jan. 10. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama spoke out on Monday against President Trump’s efforts to seal the United States borders against people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, siding with protesters around the country outraged at Mr. Trump’s crackdown on immigration.
“President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country,” said Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the former president, in a statement issued after a weekend of protests against Mr. Trump’s executive order. “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.”
Mr. Obama, the statement added, “fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.”
The statement was muted compared to the expressions of vitriol against Mr. Trump’s order from other Democrats and humanitarian activists. But its timing — only 10 days after Mr. Obama left office vowing to give Mr. Trump time to succeed in the presidency before questioning his policies — indicated that Mr. Obama felt compelled to speak out swiftly against what he sees as a misguided start to a new administration.
It came on the same day that Sally Q. Yates, the acting attorney general and a holdover from Mr. Obama’s team, said she would not defend the immigration order in court. And it followed a weekend during which former top Obama administration officials put aside plans to unplug from the day-to-day policy debates that consume Washington to recharge after a whirlwind final few months in power, and instead joined protests in the streets or spoke out against Mr. Trump’s policies.
“My goal here was to take it easy and do my running and my yoga and make chicken soup, but the order is so sweeping, it’s so unnecessary and it made me so angry, that I had to do something,” said Amy Pope, a former homeland security adviser to Mr. Obama who wrote an op-ed published by CNN on Monday condemning the action. She also signed a letter from more than 100 former national security officials, many but not all of them Democrats, to the Trump administration expressing “deep concern” about the ban.
Mr. Obama’s statement and the articles and letters from his former top advisers were a break with past custom. Outgoing presidents and their staffs usually grant an informal grace period of sorts to a new administration, staying quiet publicly about policy differences.
Days before leaving the White House, Mr. Obama told reporters that he would only speak out if he felt the nation’s ideals were under threat.
“I want to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much,” he said at his final news conference on Jan. 18. “But there’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake. I put in that category, if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion.”
Mr. Obama was still on vacation with his wife in Palm Springs, Calif., on Monday and was not available for an interview, Mr. Lewis said. But after a weekend of watching chaos at airports as green card holders and many others were detained, aides said the former president felt it was vital to express his views.
Mr. Obama was also determined, they added, to push back against the argument — made by Mr. Trump’s advisers as they defended the order — that it had been Mr. Obama’s idea to bar entrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries.
Mr. Obama’s comments came with a reminder that he had in the past spoken out against the kind of tactics Mr. Trump employed on Friday, when he ordered a temporary halt to admitting people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan or Yemen and a freeze on the United States refugee program, which he said should give priority to Christians in the future.
Along with Mr. Obama’s statement, Mr. Lewis appended a section of remarks the former president delivered in November 2015 at a summit in Antalya, Turkey, when he spoke out against a Muslim ban that Mr. Trump, then a candidate for president, had proposed.
“When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution — that’s shameful,” Mr. Obama said then. “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
Mr. Trump and his aides have contended that the immigration order is not a Muslim ban because it does not affect several predominantly Muslim countries. They have also argued that it is similar to actions Mr. Obama took, including a six-month ban on refugees from Iraq he instituted in 2011, and a requirement his administration added in 2015 that travelers from the same seven countries have visas for entering the United States.
But the 2011 action, which only affected one country, 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. And while it tightened visa requirements for people entering from the seven countries, the Obama administration never sought to bar them.