The United States shut its doors to refugees at the end of the day on Wednesday. Under President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban, refugee arrivals would be cut off once the resettlement ceiling of 50,000 for this fiscal year has been reached ― save for refugees who can prove a “bona fide relationship” with an acceptable party in the U.S., according to the State Department.
These figures represent something of a win for Trump, who has repeatedly tried to slash the refugee resettlement quota from 110,000 to 50,000. But for refugees who had already completed the vetting process and scheduled travel to the United States, Wednesday’s cutoff will yet again throw them into devastating limbo, experts say.
The Supreme Court announced last month that it would allow a limited version of Trump’s travel ban to go into effect until the court reviews the case in October. People from the six Muslim-majority countries targeted in the ban ― Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen ― can only enter the country if they have a proven “bona fide relationship” with either a family member or an approved entity in the U.S.
Joseph Kabila, 32, is a Congolese refugee who fled to Malawi in 2011. After beginning the resettlement process in 2015, he was one of the last refugees to land on U.S. soil Wednesday afternoon before the 50,000 mark was reached. After a handful of delays, he said he knows how lucky he is to have made it.
“I was the only one to be transported out of the refugee camp even though several were waiting to leave,” he said. “It’s all about chance.”
Since the travel ban hasn’t been implemented in full, the cap on the number of refugees who can be admitted into the United States wasn’t technically lowered to 50,000. But the criteria for entry became so narrow in the recent Supreme Court ruling that few refugees are expected to enter the U.S. after Wednesday.
“After we reach 50,000 refugee arrivals for FY2017, only those individuals who have a credible claim to a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States will be eligible for admission through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” a State Department spokeswoman told HuffPost.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will continue to interview refugee applicants overseas who have a credible claim to a bona fide relationship, a senior Department of Homeland Security official said Tuesday. If approved, the vast majority would be expected to travel to the U.S. next fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1, 2017.
A refugee must have a family member already living in the U.S. to prove a familial relationship. (Grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law don’t count.) Absent an approved family member, a refugee would need to prove they have some kind of relationship with an approved U.S. entity ― which could be nearly impossible, since senior administration officials have specified that the nine domestic refugee resettlement agencies don’t count.
“Clearly, the administration wants to dismantle the refugee resettlement program,” said Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy in the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, one of the resettlement agencies. “I just can’t see how the relationships that refugees have with agencies wouldn’t be recognized.”
What happens after Wednesday is anyone’s guess.
Many refugees already have trips to the U.S. booked through the end of the month, Smyers said, and now their plans could be upended. “Our local offices have already booked their apartments, are planning to meet them at airports, are enrolling their children in schools, are ready to help them learn English,” she said.
Resettlement agencies have yet to receive any official guidance, Smyers added. So far, the State Department hasn’t canceled any of the refugee flights that are scheduled past Wednesday.
This uncertainty places already vulnerable people in total limbo.
“Some of these folks are coming from very remote refugee camps,” Smyers said. “They sell their belongings, they give up their shelter.” In other words, they’re hardly in a good position to have to learn at the last minute that they won’t be allowed into the U.S. after all.
Even for refugees who may be able to prove ties to family or an entity in the U.S., there’s no guarantee that their arrival will happen in a timely manner.
Fifty percent of refugees “have some kind of family tie with people in the United States,” a senior administration official said recently, but the government plans to “examine case by case to determine whether or not those family ties in each case are covered under the definitions that have been established.”
This article has been updated with information about Citizenship and Immigration Services interviewing overseas applicants, and after the 50,000 threshold had been reached.