MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'll start with a look at a very busy week in Washington punctuated by President Trump's executive directives on everything from the Affordable Care Act and abortion to a promised border wall with Mexico to calls to restart two controversial pipeline programs. And then there is that ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries signed yesterday.
We're going to drill down on that story today because there has been tremendous reaction to it both here and abroad. To talk about all this, we've called NPR's Scott Horsley, who covers the White House. Scott, welcome back.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
MARTIN: Also on the line with us is NPR's Aarti Shahani from San Francisco. Aarti, welcome to you, too.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you because you've been getting reaction all day on this story. What are you hearing at the borders and from people trying to get into the country?
SHAHANI: What I'm hearing is there is confusion. People have been stranded, detained at airports across the U.S. We don't know exactly how many, but we do know it's not just refugees coming here for the first time. Green card holders, too, people with what is termed lawful permanent residency have also been pulled aside, have their status in question, if - from the designated predominantly Muslim countries.
NPR has also obtained an internal email circulating over at USCIS, the immigration agency that processes immigrant applications. The guidance says officers can keep interviewing people but cannot approve any application. That could affect people, you know, originally from those countries who are preparing to take the U.S. citizenship oath.
MARTIN: Now, I understand you've spoken with somebody who had a difficult time getting into the country.
SHAHANI: That's right. I interviewed a woman named Nisrin Elamin. She's a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Stanford University. She's had a green card for five years. She's originally from Sudan, and she was doing dissertation research there. She heard about the executive order and made a pretty last-minute decision to come back to the U.S. to avoid problems. She landed at JFK last night around 10 p.m. She still got pulled aside. Elamin said the officer dealing with her just seemed to be making it up as he went along.
NISRIN ELAMIN: The officer who was questioning me told me that they had just gotten word about this executive order 20 minutes before we arrived. So they were so confused about what to do, and they were waiting on Washington to give them more direction on what to do. And when I asked him - you know, I told him I'm a permanent resident - could I be sent back? And he said he didn't know. So he told me to just - he said it's probably going to be a long night so just kind of sit tight.
SHAHANI: Elamin was held until about 3 a.m. Homeland Security decided to stamp her in after asking her a bunch of questions about her take on radicalism and Sharia law, asking her for her Facebook account and handcuffing her. She says one of the officers told her it would not be a good idea for her to travel abroad again, even though she has a green card.
MARTIN: I understand that there are some legal challenges already in the works.
SHAHANI: Yes. The ACLU with other advocates filed a habeas petition, saying that the executive order violates the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. The position focuses on two men from Iraq, one of whom helped the U.S. military in Iraq. ACLU attorney - ACLU attorney here, Cecillia Wang, describes him.
CECILLIA WANG: One of our clients, Mr. Darweesh, served as an interpreter and worked for the United States Army's 101st Airborne Division and has been targeted by threats because of his connections with our U.S. Army in Iraq.
SHAHANI: Now, Hameed Darweesh's wife and child were admitted while he was detained. Wang says that decision was arbitrary. They were all coming in from the same country, same visa. This afternoon, by the way, he was released into the U.S. But the other man, Heider Al-Shawi is still in custody.
MARTIN: Well, let's go to Scott Horsley now. Scott, we don't have time to address all of the executive actions that we've talked about over the course of the week, so let's just focus on this again. Remind us again exactly what yesterday's executive action on immigration said.
HORSLEY: Well, Michel, it closes the door to all refugees for four months. It closes the door to refugees from Syria indefinitely. It cuts, by more than half, the total number of refugees the United States is expected to take in this year, giving priority to Christian refugees from the Middle East. And it puts a 90-day hold on all visitors from the seven countries with predominantly Muslim populations - Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan.
In signing this order at the Pentagon yesterday, President Trump described it as a way of keeping would-be terrorists out of the United States. But critics say it's a step towards that Muslim ban that the president talked about during the campaign, and they say it's a violation of America's commitment to religious freedom and the Constitution.
MARTIN: Well, Scott, stick with that idea for a moment there. You just heard reports that then - we've been hearing reports all day from critics who say that this is heavy-handed, that it's inhumane and that this is a backdoor ban on Muslims. Has the White House offered any reaction to this?
HORSLEY: Yes. The White House has been pushing back on the idea that this is a backdoor Muslim ban. A White House official noted there are a lot of Muslim countries that are not on that list of seven. And certainly, that's true. For example, Saudi Arabia, which was home to most of the 9/11 hijackers, is not on the list. Pakistan, which is home to one of the San Bernardino shooters, is not on the list. The countries that are on the list were actually put together - this list dates from the Obama administration.
And its original purpose was that people who were from those countries and - or who had traveled to those countries were required to get some extra scrutiny before they came into the United States. The critics of this new policy say there's a big difference between asking for that kind of individualized scrutiny and a blanket 90-day ban that President Trump has now ordered.
MARTIN: And what about all these reports about chaos and confusion at the borders? What are you hearing? What is the White House saying in response to that?
HORSLEY: Well, it's not terribly surprising. There was confusion about this. Let me just walk you through the timeline here. President Trump signed the executive order yesterday afternoon about 4:30 p.m., Washington-time. But the White House didn't actually release the text of the order for more than two hours, And even then, those of us who were working at the White House had trouble getting clarity from the White House press office about which countries were actually going to be shut off by that 90-day travel ban.
Now, the White House insists it was communicating for, quote, "many weeks" with relevant officials at the State Department and the Homeland Security Department, although that might be an exaggeration since President Trump was sworn in just over one week ago. But a White House official said today, quote, "everyone who needed to know about this order was informed."
MARTIN: Scott, just very briefly if I could - apologies for interrupting...
MARTIN: ...Any other reaction from lawmakers for and against? One assumes that there is.
HORSLEY: Yes. There has been some praise for this order. The GOP chairman of the House Judiciary Committee called it a sensible pause on the entry of refugees. But a lot of Democrats have been critical. And Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska also went on record tonight saying this order is overly broad.
MARTIN: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. He covers the White House. And NPR's Aarti Shahani joins us from San Francisco. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.