WASHINGTON — Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said Monday that President Donald Trump’s travel ban is a complicated issue and he’d prefer not to be put in the box of completely supporting or opposing it.
“I’m trying to do two things at once, keep two principles working in tandem: keeping America generous, keeping America safe,” Fortenberry told The World-Herald. “I think it is reasonable to pause and review our refugee policies from dangerous areas of the world, but the implementation of this has caused many difficulties and a lot of concerns so I think we need a process — which I am starting to work on — that potentially allows for expedited exceptions.”
The order Trump signed on Friday to suspend refugee resettlements and restrict travel for people from certain countries has created a firestorm — prompting demonstrations in the streets, court challenges and bipartisan criticism.
On Monday, for example, congressional Democrats rallied in opposition at the Supreme Court and offered Senate legislation to rescind the order — an effort that was blocked by Republicans.
Meanwhile, some Republicans representing Nebraska and western Iowa, including Fortenberry, were trying to walk a tightrope on Trump’s new immigration policy. They expressed support for the president’s stated goals, while also suggesting that his order could work better.
For Fortenberry, refugee issues strike close to home.
One of his early pieces of legislation — a copy of which still hangs in his office — raised the number of special visas available for Iraqi and Afghan translators who helped the U.S. military.
Fortenberry also represents Nebraska’s 1st District, which includes Lincoln and one of the country’s largest communities of Yazidis — a small group that follows an ancient faith tradition. He successfully pushed to get the plight of Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria designated as genocide in order to raise international attention.
“You can’t sit idly by and watch people systematically targeted for extermination based upon their religion,” Fortenberry said.
He met Monday with a Yazidi man whose two brothers are in Lincoln. The man earned his U.S. citizenship by being a translator for the military, and his wife was supposed to arrive over the weekend. Because of Trump’s order, she was not allowed to come.
Fortenberry said he assumes that the administration will develop a process for exceptions while the travel ban is in effect.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., was among those who kept a low profile through the weekend, declining opportunities to comment. She broke her silence Monday afternoon with a press release backing the purpose of the ban — but also noting the confusion and anxiety produced by the new policy.
“Our number one responsibility is to protect our nation, and I agree that we need to strengthen and reform the vetting process,” Fischer said in the release. “The intention of this executive order is on point, but the implementation of it must be orderly, careful and clear. As we work to keep dangerous individuals out, we must also remain a welcoming country to people of all faiths.”
Sen. Ben Sasse was one Midlands Republican who did not support Trump’s refugee policy. An outspoken critic of Trump during the presidential campaign, the Nebraskan was quick to say that while the president is right to focus on the importance of borders, his order is too broad.
“If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion,” Sasse said in a press release.
Democrats and a number of advocacy groups have been much harsher in their criticism, blasting the order as arbitrary, inhumane and un-American.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, on the other hand, seemed very much in support of the move. He wrote on Twitter that Trump had “temporarily blocked Obama-led hijrah to the U.S. It may be too late for Europe ...”
The word “hijrah” refers to Muslim immigration. King included a link to an article that characterized the flow of refugees into Europe from the Middle East as an attempt at Muslim colonization of that continent.
Reps. Adrian Smith and Don Bacon, Nebraska Republicans, both sounded supportive of the ban in statements that touted the need to review vetting procedures.
Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, said in a statement that the principal role of the federal government is to keep Americans safe. He compared the president’s action to a bill that overwhelmingly passed the House in 2015. It would have paused refugees from Iraq and Syria until more stringent vetting could be put in place. That legislation was supported by most House members from Nebraska and western Iowa, including former Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., who now criticizes Trump’s order. The one opponent was King, who said it didn’t go far enough.
Young also echoed other Republicans’ assertion that President Barack Obama instituted a similar pause on refugees from Iraq in 2011. That claim is disputed by Obama officials who told the Washington Post that their stepped-up vetting procedures only slowed the process and still allowed people to come to America.
Young said the U.S. “will continue to aid and be welcoming to those seeking refuge and asylum.” But he said the nation needs to be “extra cautious and vigilant,” saying that terrorists seek to exploit the refugee program to harm Americans.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, also said it was prudent to reassess the vetting process but called for more clarity about its implementation. Ernst, who served in Iraq as a company commander with the Iowa Army National Guard, expressed support for those who helped the U.S. as translators.
“In our efforts to protect our nation from ISIS, we also must ensure we are not inadvertently penalizing our allies in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism — especially those who have supported U.S. military efforts in Iraq,” she said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said national security is the top responsibility of the federal government.
“The goals of the executive order are commendable, and something President Trump promised during the campaign,” Grassley said in a statement. “But implementation will be key to ensuring the bad guys are kept out while remaining a welcoming nation to people of all backgrounds and religions.”