WHITE HOUSE —
The terror attack in New York on Tuesday quickly became a political issue after President Donald Trump blamed a visa program that he said allowed the suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, into the country and called the U.S. justice system “a joke” for moving too slowly.
Saipov, who told officers he chose Halloween for his attack because he thought more people would be on the streets, was charged on Wednesday in a two-count criminal complaint.
Trump said he wants to immediately work with Congress to abolish the immigration lottery under which Saipov entered the United States.
Those remarks drew criticism from Democrats, who said the president was rushing to politicize a tragedy at a time when law enforcement is trying to determine the facts of what happened.
On Wednesday, Trump, in a Twitter remark, blamed Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York for allowing “the terrorist” into the U.S., as part of “what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based.”
Schumer accused Trump of “politicizing and dividing America, which he always seems to do at times of national tragedy.” Schumer said he has “always believed and continue to believe that immigration is good for America.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the president’s tweets “unhelpful.”
“I don’t think they were factual. I think they tended to point fingers and politicize the situation. He was referring back to an immigration policy that dealt with a lottery and blaming people who passed that immigration policy. His tweet wasn’t even accurate, as far as I’m concerned. That was a bipartisan law that was passed that had basically no relevance to the facts of this situation.”
Later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was not blaming Schumer for the attack and that only Saipov was responsible. She said Trump considers Saipov an “enemy combatant.”
But she said the lottery immigration system under which Saipov came to the U.S. in 2010 should be revoked because it leaves to chance who gets to come to the United States, with little vetting of their character and background.
The immigration lottery was part of 1990 U.S. legislation that Schumer, then a member of the House of Representatives, sponsored along with 25 other Democrats and six Republicans.
More ‘extreme vetting’
Trump has responded to the attack with a call for increased screening of those entering the country.
“The United States will be immediately implementing much tougher Extreme Vetting Procedures,” he wrote on Twitter late Wednesday. “The safety of our citizens comes first!”
That echoed a similar statement he made hours after the attack.
“Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!” he said Tuesday.
Sanders told reporters that some of the measures the administration would like to see include enhanced collection of biometric and biographical data, better sharing of information with other nations, improving U.S. intelligence streams and more thorough review procedures for the country’s border protection agency.
Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice and director for the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, said it is good to reassess policies, but that he worries that process can result in a response based on bias instead of facts.
"What we have to understand is our problem is more so radicalization, not necessarily immigration, because we have people who are converts or who are unstable that are being radicalized by social media or peer group members, and that’s a problem that making a reflexive response with regard to immigration simply isn’t going to resolve," he told VOA.
Levin said there should be a focus on scrubbing the internet of extremist content, and that while vetting is necessary, that screening should not single out religion in a way that goes against the country's values of religious pluralism.
WATCH: President Trump Sparks Debate Over Comments on Terror Attack
Uzbekistan not part of travel ban
Uzbekistan is not one of the countries that the Trump administration has highlighted as security threats warranting a ban on travelers.Sanders said no decision has been made on whether Uzbekistan should be added to the travel ban list.
Saipov, according to law enforcement officials, said he had carried out the attack after watching Islamic State videos on his cellphone.
Extremism analyst Bennett Clifford at George Washington University says many become radicalized after they are already in the United States.
“I think that’s important to take in mind as well that we’re not only facing an international terrorism problem in terms of people from overseas coming here,” Clifford said. “That’s less of an issue than I think than the problem of homegrown extreme — extremism where individuals born, raised in the United States are pushed down this same path to violent extremism.”
In remarks at the White House on Wednesday, the president also suggested more fundamental changes to the U.S. justice system to address the threat of terrorist attacks. He also seemed to blame the U.S. justice system for attacks like the one in New York Tuesday.
“We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place.”