First Republican Senators Speak Out Against Trump's Ban on Travelers From Muslim Countries

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Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. questions Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.
Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. questions Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

WASHINGTON D.C. - A day after President Trump signed an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, first signs of opposition to this policy from within the Republican Party were beginning to emerge. 

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On Saturday, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) was the first Republican senator to publicly criticize the president's executive order to effectively bar travelers from Yemen, Libya, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia from entering the U.S. "The President is right to focus attention on the obvious fact that borders matter. At the same time, while not technically a Muslim ban, this order is too broad," Sasse explained in a statement released by his office. He added that he was worried this order would "send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as Jihadis," something that in his mind would lead to a win for Islamist extremists. "The terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion." 

Sasse made sure to distance himself from liberal critics of Trump's policies, stating that "there are two ways to lose our generational battle against Jihadism by losing touch with reality. The first is to keep pretending that Jihadi terrorism has no connection to Islam or to certain countries. That's been a disaster." The second way to lose that battle, Sasse explained, was by adopting policies that don't distinguish between ordinary Muslims and terrorists, which is what he seems to find wrong in the new president's executive order. "Both approaches are wrong, and both will make us less safe," he concluded. Sasse, it should be noted, did not support Trump's candidacy for president during the 2016 elections. 

Later on Saturday, Sasse was joined by another GOP Senator, Jeff Flake (R-AZ,) who also spoke out against the president's executive order. "President Trump and his administration are right to be concerned about national security, but it’s unacceptable when even legal permanent residents are being detained or turned away at airports and ports of entry," Flake declared. "Enhancing long term national security requires that we have a clear-eyed view of radical Islamic terrorism without ascribing radical Islamic terrorist views to all Muslims." Flake, like Sasse,  constantly criticized Trump during the elections.  

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) also criticized the new policy, telling the Maine-Sun Journal that it was "overly broad" and could hurt Iraqis who worked with American forces as translators and bodyguards. 

Another Republican who has come out against the controversial immigration policy was Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who represents a district with a large Syrian population, most of it Christian. Dent said already on Thursday that "I would just be anxious if there's a restriction on all refugees from Syria. This last week in my office I had a woman talking to me about her brother in a Christian village being bombed by the Al-Nusrah Front or ISIS, and trying to get them out. So I have to deal with these issues on a regular basis. There are a lot of refugees in Syria who are not terrorists." 

The Trump administration has made a public pledge to give priority to Christian refugees escaping the Middle East, including from Syria, leading many critics of the executive order to describe it as instating a de-facto religious test upon entry to the United States. Despite that, Rep. Dent told the New York Times on Saturday: "I urge the administration to halt enforcement of this order until a more thoughtful and deliberate policy can be instated." He also told the Washington Post that "there are many, many nuances of immigration policy that can be life-or-death for many innocent, vulnerable people around the world." 

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) also criticized the order, saying that "it's not lawful to ban immigrants on basis of nationality." He also warned that the order undermines the U.S. Constitution. The vast majority of Republican congressmen, however, either supported the executive order, or at least didn't publicly denounce it. Some, like Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) expressed support for the order, but urged to make it softer or more flexible on certain issues, such as the admission into the U.S. of Iraqi citizens who assisted U.S. forces during the war in Iraq. 

When Trump first called to bar all Muslims from entering the United States in late 2015, he was harshly criticized by many leading Republicans, and his suggestion was rejected by the entire senior rank of the party. Now, however, their voices are not heard. The office of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI,) who was arguably the most senior Republican critic of Trump's call for a Muslim ban, explained on Saturday that the executive order Trump signed "is not a religious test and it is not a ban on people of any religion." On Twitter, meanwhile, tens of thousands of people retweeted an old statement by Trump's vice president, Mike Pence, who in his former role as Governor of Indiana proclaimed in December 2015 that "calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional."

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