Breaking his silence only 10 days after he left office, former President Barack Obama backed nationwide protests against President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration Monday.
In a strongly worded statement issued through a spokesman, Obama said he was "heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country."
"Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake," he said.
Shortly afterward, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates — a holdover from the Obama administration — sent a memo to Justice Department lawyers ordering them not to defend the executive order against several legal challenges that were filed over the weekend.
The former president rejected Trump's contention Sunday that his executive orders restricting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries were "similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months."
Obama's statement Monday said: "With regard to comparisons to President Obama's foreign policy decisions, as we've heard before, the President fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion."
The 2011 order did not ban visas for refugees, who by definition don't travel on visas. It tightened the review process for citizens of Iraq and for refugees from the six other countries, while Trump's is a near-blanket order applying to nearly all residents and citizens of all seven countries.
The statement Monday referred to Obama's remarks in a news conference in November 2015, when he said the "United States has to step up and do its part" to protect and assist refugees.
"When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims, when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who's fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution — that's shameful," Obama said at the time.
"That's not American. That's not who we are," he said then. "We don't have religious tests to our compassion."