Somali refugees are pictured inside the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. (ONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

For Refugees in the Trump Era, a Tougher Path to the U.S.

January 23, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Afkab Hussein takes advantage of his commutes as a truck driver in Columbus, Ohio to speak to his wife and son, both of whom live in Nairobi, Kenya. They talk every day, sometimes for more than three hours, and his wife tells him about the words their two-year-old, Abdullahi, has learned in their native Somali.

Hussein, 30, has never met his son in person. He has gotten to know him through video chats and the dozens of pictures his wife sends. He loves to make Abdullahi – who is fascinated by cars – laugh by showing him the inside of his truck. For his birthday in November, Hussein bought him a toddler’s bicycle.

“When I see my son … I feel good,” he said. “I love him so much, my son and my wife.”

Hussein came to the United States from Kenya, where he grew up in the Dadaab refugee camp alongside hundreds of thousands fleeing famine, drought and civil war in neighboring Somalia.

The resettlement process took him five years, but from Columbus, he is able to send money to his wife, Rhodo Abdirahman, that has helped her and Abdullahi live outside the camp.

“That was my dream,” he said about coming to America in 2015. “It was a beautiful country, and it was safe and you could work.”

Since arriving, Hussein has sought to bring Abdullahi and his wife to the U.S. through “follow to join,” a family reunification program for refugees that brought about 2,000 family members into the country in 2015, according to Department of Homeland Security data. But in October, he hit a snag: The Trump administration suspended the program, putting Hussein’s petition, and thousands like it, on hold.

Meanwhile, the clock never stopped ticking on key processing deadlines attached to these applications. While a federal court would block the administration’s order in December, families like Hussein’s could be forced to start over again if the security and medical checks required for them to travel to the U.S. expire before their applications are fully processed.

These processing times have already grown longer under tough new vetting requirements introduced by the Trump administration in October, according to resettlement agency officials. At the current pace, they say, the U.S. will fail to meet the ceiling of 45,000 refugees that President Donald Trump set in September. That limit is a nearly 60 percent cut from the 110,000 cap that President Barack Obama announced before leaving office, and the lowest since the modern refugee program was created in 1980.

The new cap reflects a dramatic shift in U.S. refugee policy that began a year ago this week with President Trump’s executive order suspending the entry of all refugees into the country for 120 days, temporarily banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations, and indefinitely halting the admission of Syrian refugees. While President Trump has said his policies are aimed at preventing terrorism, critics worry the new vetting standards risk costing many refugees their opportunity for safety from war, persecution and economic insecurity. During a global refugee crisis, they say, the administration is shutting the door on people seeking resettlement as a last resort.

“Are they saying, we really want to reach this goal of 45,000 and we’re going to put these procedures into place and our resources into making sure this happens, or is this just another way to derail the whole process?” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs at HIAS, a Maryland-based resettlement agency. “It just seems like from everything that we’re seeing, it’s not being done with the intent of a secure program. It’s being done with the intent of no program, or a very tiny program.”

Legal challenges blocked the implementation of the president’s original travel ban, but in June the Supreme Court allowed a modified ban to take partial effect, saying it should not be applied to foreign nationals with a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States,” such as a family member.

When the modified refugee ban expired in October, the administration ordered that 11 countries — Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — undergo a 90-day review to screen for possible security threats. This practically halted refugee admissions from those countries, which for each of the past three years have made up more than 40 percent of U.S. refugee admissions, according to a Reuters analysis. (A federal court injunction partially lifted this order in December. The government is currently appealing.)

Refugees already faced a stringent U.S. vetting system that included numerous layers of security checks across multiple federal agencies, higher level clearances for certain nationalities, and interviews with United Nations and State Department officials. As he restarted the refugee program in October, Trump instituted “enhanced vetting capabilities” including improving the mining of social media data and the collection of 10 years of biographical information, rather than five.

The new procedures, combined with the 11-country review, helped lower refugee admissions by 77 percent between October and December 2017. During that time, the U.S. admitted about 5,000 refugees, down from more than 25,000 one year earlier, according to data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. Refugees who identify as Muslim typically make up more than 40 percent of arrivals, but during those three months only 14 percent of refugees were Muslim, a recent Wall Street Journal analysis found, noting that the number of Christian refugees had increased.

A spokesman for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment on processing times or vetting procedures for refugees, but as a candidate and now as president, Trump has repeatedly argued for tougher screening. As a candidate, he famously promised to restrict Muslims from entering the U.S. Last summer, he tweeted that the U.S. “must suspend immigration from regions linked with terrorism until a proven vetting method is in place.”

David Inserra, a policy analyst specializing in homeland security issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he supported “any way in which we can improve the vetting procedure.”

“In asking for certain documents or looking for people who can vet better, that’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as we’re still taking those folks,” he said.

But leaders of refugee resettlement agencies, which work with hundreds of local offices to help new refugees integrate, question the value of tougher vetting. They argue that the admission process was already tightly controlled and that refugees who have had to flee their homes could struggle to provide the documentation needed to meet the new requirements.

Administration policies, these leaders say, have also made it harder to do the day-to-day work of resettlement. The lower refugee ceiling, they note, has forced resettlement agencies to downsize, closing offices and laying off staff.

Erol Kekic, the head of Church World Service’s immigration and refugee program, said that the amount of money wasted by resettlement offices preparing for refugees that never come is in the “tens of thousands of dollars if not in hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Planning for refugees, he said, has turned into a game of trying to predict the arrival of nationalities that are not subject to extra security review or that travel through windows created by court injunctions.

“It has been a process of navigating a very difficult set of circumstances and looking at a crystal ball that is quite murky,” said Kekic, whose organization announced plans last March to lay off over 500 employees.

Refugee processing has also been slowed by reductions in infrastructure abroad, according to resettlement officials who say that Homeland Security officials are conducting fewer interviews of refugees overseas. An October report submitted to Congress on refugee admissions for fiscal year 2018 said that the Department of Homeland Security would prioritize asylum applications from those already in the U.S. over overseas refugee processing in order to address the asylum backlog.

“We’re entering into a new period where we don’t know how long it will take people to go through the entire vetting process,” said Lee Williams, the Vice President of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a resettlement agency. “It is a real balancing act to get all these various security checks and their health checks and everything else to align.”

Chris Opila, a former caseworker at Resettlement Support Center Africa, a center based in Nairobi that works with the State Department to process refugees for resettlement, explained that the longer wait times drag out, the more applications can become complicated. For example, during longer wait times, refugees may get married and have children, adding people to their cases.

“You get a collection of messy cases that increasingly require more institutional resources to clean them up,” said Opila.

This had been one of Hussein’s concerns when applying for resettlement. He was well into the process before he got married in 2014, and had feared that adding his wife to his case could extend their wait by years.

“That was a good decision for both of us because I would still be in a refugee camp if we put a case together,” he said.

Hussein’s wife and son, initially approved for resettlement by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in June 2016, are currently waiting for a security clearance. Their medical examinations, which have already expired once, are due to expire again this week.

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