Laila, an Iraqi engineer and mother of two, spent two years living in a Turkish refugee camp before she was resettled in Jacksonville, Florida, last November. But her father-in-law is stuck in Turkey, and the rest of her immediate family is still in Baghdad. Now that she’s safe and sound, she’s desperate to be reunited with them.
President Donald Trump’s 120-day ban on refugee resettlement, which goes into effect March 16, will make that much more difficult.
Trump’s new order is narrower in certain respects than the one he signed on Jan. 27, which was blocked in the courts. But the new executive order will be just as devastating to the U.S. refugee resettlement program as the first. As in the past executive order, Trump reduced the goal for refugee resettlement from 110,000 people this fiscal year to 50,000. The order also bars all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days, unless their travel has already been scheduled.
“No matter how the language might have been changed, we know the intent is the same and the impact on refugees will be devastating,” said Naomi Steinberg, director of Refugee Council USA. The plan “will tear refugee families apart [and] will leave more than 50,000 refugees living overseas in danger in really precarious situations,” she said.
“We think this is just a 2.0 version of the same order,” added Erol Kekic, executive director of the refugee resettlement organization Church World Service, which is one of nine domestic resettlement agencies.
No matter how the language might have been changed, we know the intent is the same and the impact on refugees will be devastating. Naomi Steinberg, Refugee Council USA
While Trump’s first order blocked Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. indefinitely, they will now be barred for at least 120 days like other refugees. But doing away with the resettlement program, even for 120 days, can still totally derail the plans of thousands of refugees who have been been waiting to start their new lives in America.
When refugees go through the approval process to come to the U.S., they are approved in stages, each of which is valid for a limited period. A refugee’s interview is valid for 15 months, for example, while a medical clearance is valid for 90 days. That means that different types of approval could expire during the 120-day break in refugee resettlement, and they would need to undergo certain screenings again. Steinberg said that could take years.
“Because of our extreme vetting system that is already in place, all of the security checks and the checks the refugees have to go through are time-sensitive,” Steinberg said. “So those who were expecting to arrive in this country during the time that the ban will be in place, that will knock many of them ― thousands of them ― back to square one.”
Sakina Alothman, 27, is experiencing these policy ramifications firsthand. She’s a Syrian Kurdish refugee who was resettled in Buffalo, New York, last November with her sister. Their brother joined them in January, but their parents and the rest of their siblings are still stuck in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The other family members were booked on flights to the U.S. after Trump signed the first order, but they still haven’t made it over. No one has given Alothman and her siblings an explanation.
Alothman said her family members had their visas and were supposed to come on Feb. 15. “We are so worried,” she said.
Overall, there is still considerable uncertainty about what refugee resettlement will look like after it restarts ― it’s unclear what type of vetting measures will be added, who will be approved and whether all refugees will be welcomed at all.
The new executive order, like the last one, also says state and local officials will have more say in which refugees they accept. Many governors said in 2015 that they did not want Syrian refugees, but were told they didn’t have the power to bar legally admitted residents.
Refugee resettlement organizations already began cutting staff due to Trump’s decision to lower the refugee admission goal from the 110,000 figure set by former President Barack Obama. The nonprofit organizations receive funding for each refugee they resettle, which goes toward helping individuals and families find housing, medical care, employment, school and more.
The bare-bones offices will work during the 120-day period to assist refugees already in the United States (some 37,000 refugees have already arrived in the country in fiscal year 2017). When that period is over in mid-July, there will be about 2.5 months left to resettle the remainder of refugees allotted for the fiscal year ― nearly 13,000 people.
“There will be very little capacity left after four months to serve them,” Kekic said. “So it’s pretty much a perfect storm that they have created.”
In addition to financial resources, resettlement agencies depend heavily on political will and coordination to make the process work. Vetting refugees involves in-person interviews overseas with every single federal agency.
“The thing that worries me most is that it does take a tremendous amount of political will to bring in refugees,” said Amy Pope, a former National Security Council staffer who dealt with refugee issues. “If they don’t put in the care and attention to keep the machine moving,” she said, “the whole process will grind to a halt.”
For now, families like Laila’s are at an impasse. Refugees resettled in the U.S. can apply for green cards after one year in the country. Before that time, they can take advantage of two different refugee-specific family reunification programs.
But both refugee family reunification programs “are subjected to the 120 day pause, and will likely face much longer delays than that also, due to the decreased refugee cap,” said Betsy Fischer, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project. This means some families may have to wait years before they can see each other again.
Laila began the reunification process after she arrived in November but isn’t sure what will happen next.
“I’m worried for my family in Baghdad and my father-in-law in Turkey,” she said in Arabic. “There is no stability in Turkey. We can’t work. We don’t have rights there. It’s all such a loss. Everything we worked for.”
Laila’s name was changed out of fear for her family members still in the Middle East.
Rowaida Abdelaziz and Nick Baumann contributed reporting.