In a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that made no explicit reference to the Jewish victims, Donald Trump said:
In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.
He then went on to ban Syrian refugees from entry to the U.S.:
…I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend such entry…
Trump has referred to such measures as “extreme vetting.”
Trump said that Syrian Christians will be given priority when it comes to applying for refugee status, a policy that would likely be challenged on similar grounds.
“If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians,” Trump said in an excerpt of an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, discussing the Syrian refugees.
Statistics provided by the Pew Research Center last October do not support Trump’s argument. Pew research found that 38,901 Muslim refugees entered the United States in fiscal year 2016 from all countries, almost the same number, 37,521, as Christian refugees.
Stephen Legomsky, a former Chief Counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration, said prioritizing Christians could be unconstitutional.
“If they are thinking about an exception for Christians, in almost any other legal context discriminating in favor of one religion and against another religion could violate the constitution,” he said.
But Peter Spiro, a professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law, said Trump’s move would likely be constitutional because the president and Congress are allowed considerable deference when it comes to asylum decisions.
“It’s a completely plausible prioritization, to the extent this group is actually being persecuted,” Spiro said.