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Letter from America: Government by Executive Order

May 2017 | by Ben Wilkerson

If one thing could be said of Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, he is not a man to mince his words or follow the status quo.

This was clear from his inauguration address on 20 January: ‘Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning, because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, but transferring it from Washington DC and giving it back to you the people.

‘For too long a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed’.

His blunt statements have garnered much criticism from politicians, the media and many who do not share his views. And recently there has been much criticism over his executive orders on immigration.

What is an executive order?

For those not familiar with the American political system, there are three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial; and there are checks and balances that prohibit each branch from being more powerful than the other.

As explained on the White House website: ‘The power of the executive branch is vested in the President of the United States, who also acts as head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress and, to that end, appoints the heads of the federal agencies, including the cabinet’.

While the President’s role is to enforce laws passed by Congress (the legislative branch), he may also issue executive orders ‘which direct executive officers or clarify and further existing laws’.

The justification behind executive orders (EOs) is foggy at best. Historically, the basis for them comes from Article II of the constitution: ‘the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States’; ‘the President shall be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States’, and ‘he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed’.

EOs have been issued ever since the days of George Washington, especially under President Wilson, who issued 1,800 orders. They have essentially the same power as law if based on constitutional or statutory law precedent, but can be overturned by judicial review.

When Donald Trump became president, he took no time to start running the country and issuing EOs. Of his 13 EOs since coming into office, three have garnered much press coverage and criticism. These pertain to immigration and border protection.

Border security and immigration (EO 13767)

Published on 25 January, this EO directs ‘executive departments and agencies to deploy all lawful means to secure the United States’ southern border, to prevent further illegal immigration into the United States, and to repatriate illegal aliens swiftly, consistently and humanely’.

Trump is here beginning to put into action his plan to build a physical wall between Mexico and the United States. This EO gives greater power to the border patrol and other federal agencies to prevent, detain and repatriate foreign aliens. Although the wall’s planning and construction has yet to begin, due to funding constraints, all other policies contained within the order have been put into action.

During Obama’s presidency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was to prioritise the targeting of serious and dangerous criminals among illegal aliens, but turn a blind eye to other undocumented immigrants.

Under Trump’s administration this priority has changed and, according to the New York Times (25 February 2017), ICE received a morale booster with this EO. In southern California alone, 161 immigrants were detained in the last month for everything from felonies to misdemeanours, while ten of them had no criminal history at all. Not only has the order given ICE power to repatriate all illegal aliens, it has given it a hiring craze to call for 10,000 new applicants.

But not everyone is ‘gung-ho’ about the new immigration crackdown. The media and much of the American public has criticised President Trump’s move, with some calling it ‘extremist, ineffective and expensive’ (‘Trump orders construction of border wall, boosts deportation force’, by Jeremy Diamond, CNN).

The order has not only caused an increase in arrests and deportations, but much anxiety in the Hispanic community. Janet Murguía of the National Council of La Raza has stated: ‘Rather than provide real solutions, President Trump has decided to trigger greater chaos and fear, set in motion a mass deportation force, bully cities that refuse to indiscriminately persecute immigrant communities, and waste billions on a wall.

‘None of these actions will fix anything, but will devastate our economy and the social fabric of our country. Candidate Trump slandered Mexican immigrants as criminals, questioned the fairness of a distinguished US-born judge based solely on his Mexican heritage, and constantly repeated debunked falsehoods about immigration’ (Ibid.).

Public safety within the United States (EO 13768)

This second order and the one above together enhance the authority of United States border and immigration control agencies by disposing of sanctuary jurisdictions.

Previously, many US cities were set up as ‘sanctuary cities’ to protect immigrants from being repatriated by the US government. Matthew Feeney, in the San Francisco Chronicle (20 February 2017), defines this: ‘Sanctuary policies and practices include barring police from asking crime victims or witnesses about immigration status, as well as forbidding officers from stopping someone solely to determine their status’.

But Trump’s EO inhibits such rights by withholding federal funding from sanctuary cities and giving federal and state law enforcement agencies full legal power to apprehend undocumented immigrants.

While some states and cities are not enthusiastic about this order, other Republican states are gearing up for the change. Florida Secretary of State Aaron Bean and Representative Larry Metz stated they are pressing forward with legislation to impose ‘consequences’ on cities and counties ‘who say there are only select, certain federal laws they’re going to abide by’.

Bean said, ‘We’re also looking at removing the umbrella of your sovereign immunity for elected individuals, boards and constitutional officers’ (Kristen M. Clark in Tampa Bay Times, 27 February 2017). This would make law enforcement officials subject to lawsuits, should they not uphold federal law.

Foreign terrorist entry into the United States (EO 13769)

This is perhaps the most unpopular of President Trump’s EOs. It has brought much criticism and a federal judicial review.

In plain terms, it places a cap on immigration to the United States during 2017 (no more than 50,000); temporarily suspends the refugee programme for 120 days; bars entry to citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days; and puts an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. According to the Washington Post,over 700 travellers were detained on the order being issued and nearly 60,000 visas provisionally revoked (24 February 2017).

This caused much heartache for those detained or suddenly separated from their families. There have been protests at airports around the country, and from across the world. Lawsuits have come in from all sides. By the Saturday evening, a federal judge had placed a temporary halt on Trump’s order, calling it unconstitutional.

Later, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rescinded the judge’s order and called for the Trump administration to clarify its reasoning before further federal enforcement of the order could take place. Judges from New York, Washington State and Boston have already declared an emergency stay for international travellers affected by the ban.

Christians stranded

The order caused a tremendous outcry from US universities and businesses. In an interview for CNN, Mahmoud Hassan, an 18-year-old Syrian, stated that his ‘dreams [of attending MIT] are basically ruined’ (‘Trump travel ban: here’s what you need to know’, by Doug Criss, CNN, 30 January 2017).

This order, in particular, has been criticised by the church. In an interview with Christianity Today, president of World Relief Scott Arbeiter stated, ‘Our concern is that this action really does further traumatise a group of people that have already borne so much tragedy. The human toll is really crushing’ (‘Evangelical experts oppose Trump’s refugee ban’, by Kate Shellnutt, 25 January 2017).

Last year World Relief resettled 11,000 refugees, with nearly 1,200 churches assisting them. As Syria sends out most refugees by far, this order is devastating news both for them and for those who have a heart to help them. Many Syrian refugees are Christians who now have nowhere to go.

World Relief and similar organisations have done a tremendous job in relocating refugees and have stated adamantly that it is worth the safety risks to help those who are suffering. That being said, many Christians sympathise with Trump’s decision. Lifeway found that ‘Protestant congregations were twice as likely to fear refugees as help them’ (Ibid.).

The Pew Research Centre has stated that ‘about two-thirds of white evangelicals and mainline Protestants believe that America does not have a moral responsibility to accept Syrian refugees. Overall, 40 per cent of American voters agreed’. Sad news indeed for those affected by war and terror.


While Trump has certainly ‘come true’ on many of his policies, these EOs have stretched human rights issues to the maximum, and many in favour of Trump on 20 January are now singing a different tune.

The EOs have affected the church in many ways and pose an important question: how are we to respond to these laws? While we are certainly instructed by Jesus in Matthew 22 and Paul in Romans 13 to submit to the authorities, there is also a gospel obligation to love our neighbour (Matthew 25:34-40).

The greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God will all our heart, soul, mind and strength. But the second is, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). I think these principles must govern our view of Trump’s travel ban.

Let us continue to pray that God will expand his kingdom, which knows no bounds, and that we will all love and give help to our neighbours and sojourners among us, whether Syrian or Hispanic.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA

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