Trump Has Slowed Refugee Admissions to a Crawl

- Februari 26, 2018

The last time Deborah Jane saw her four children was nearly four years ago, after men attacked her with acid in Kampala, Uganda, scorching half her body and nearly killing her, then threatening to come after her again. After fleeing to Nairobi to recover, she applied for and was granted resettlement in Columbus, Ohio. She left as soon as she could.

“I was assured my children could follow me,” said Jane, 42, of her daughters, now 19, 14 and 9, and her son, now 11. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have come here.”

But soon after the children’s application was approved by the Department of Homeland Security, President Donald Trump banned all such family admissions, as part of his October 2017 executive order that resumed overall refugee admissions but ordered another 90-day halt on refugees from 11 mainly Muslim countries. In late December, a federal judge ordered that the family arrivals resume—but, almost three months later, Jane has received no updates about her case.

“I feel like a liar to my children,” said Jane, who works as a cake maker and home aide to be able to send them money. “The younger ones keep saying, ‘Mommy, just come back,’ but the older ones say, ‘She cannot come back, remember what happened to her?’ At times I break down and feel like all my patience has gone away.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees like Jane received permission for their families to join them in the Dec. 23 court ruling. That judge ruled that refugees with family members in the United States must be allowed into the country, while still allowing the broader parts of the order. But even after that ruling, just a handful of those refugees’ relatives have been resettled or even notified of their status, resettlement workers say.

The lack of these arrivals, at a time they were legally ordered to resume, is just one window into how the Trump administration has slowed the resettlement process through administrative obstacles, lack of proper staffing and “enhanced security measures,” say advocates and former staffers. Many of them are starting to wonder if the dysfunction is intentional. “The program isn’t being managed—or, it’s being managed to fail,” said Bob Carey, former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement during the Obama Administration. “What couldn’t be achieved through executive orders is being achieved through administrative roadblocks or lack of will.”

These workers’ impression of engineered chaos comes as the State Department is already using low numbers of refugees to justify the closure of dozens of offices of resettlement agencies, which are private nonprofits that contract with the federal government. The resettlement agencies and employees still standing are left with the question of how to do their jobs under an administration that at best is making resettlement a very low priority.

If refugee arrivals continue at the same pace as they have been for the past five months, the United States is on track to resettle just half the number President Trump declared was the ceiling this fiscal year: 45,000, already a historically low number. Just 6,704 refugees were resettled in the first quarter of 2018, which started in October, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, compared with 25,671 in 2017 and 13,791 in 2016. And in the few weeks after the so-called Muslim ban on refugees from 11 countries was lifted, from Jan. 21 to Feb. 15, the United States had received only 53 such individuals, who typically make up about half of all refugee arrivals, according to resettlement workers.

In a year in which the president simply banned whole groups of refugees from entering the United States, it’s far from unexpected that arrivals would be below those of previous administrations. But Trump’s high-profile executive orders halting refugee admissions last year are just part of the resettlement program’s disruptions. More than a year after the original ban, resettlement workers paint a picture of chaos and confusion, and a field that has been upended by dramatic, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, changes. “If the refugee resettlement program were an assembly line in a factory, it works efficiently because every station knows what to do and how to do the handoff,” said Barbara Strack, who was chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the Department of Homeland Security until retiring three weeks ago. “What the administration has done this year is break that assembly line in multiple places at the same time.”

Family reunification cases, or follow-to-join cases like the Janes, are a striking example of how administrative obstacles have crippled one part of the refugee resettlement process. These cases have been among the most stymied, even after the court ordered they resume. Fewer than 25 such individuals arrived in the first five weeks after the program’s resumption in late December, a resettlement source said. By comparison, about 200 such individuals typically arrived each month under the Obama Administration.

The backlog of pending follow-to-join cases has exploded in recent months, said Angie Plummer, executive director of the refugee resettlement organization Community Refugee & Immigration Services in Columbus, Ohio, who has worked on follow-to-join cases for the past 25 years. “It seems like they’re getting bottle-necked and now nothing is moving forward,” said Plummer, who has 58 pending follow-to-join cases, including Jane’s, in her local office alone. “Typically, this is a pretty straightforward process.” Plummer says many of her clients are stuck in the middle of their application process, and for others, USCIS gives her no explanation than that the case is in “administrative processing.” “These cases should have begun to travel, and what we’ve seen is just a trickle,” said Danielle Grigsby, associate director of Refugee Council USA, a coalition of over two dozen resettlement agencies.

A State Department spokeswoman attributed the follow-to-join delays to “changes to screening and vetting of follow-to-join refugees.” She said 150 follow-to-join individuals had received travel documents since the December court order, but could not confirm how many had been booked for travel. Strack attributed the delays to updated security checks, which DHS, the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had found were necessary in the 120-day interagency review after the President’s March executive order halting refugee resettlement. “Overall, the resettlement program will take a while to rebound,” she said. “It’s just not sufficiently resilient that it can draw down and have so many things change, and then resume at traditional processing levels quickly.”

This is a key point about these executive orders: The resumption of complex, layered federal processes can often accomplish the same thing as the original ban, and for a longer amount of time, “putting gum in the cogs of a system that has functioned quite well since its inception,” in Grigsby’s words.

On an individual level, this confusion can be devastating. In Jane’s case, Plummer received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, last October saying the paper file had been sent back to USCIS “due to a large backlog and lack of physical space in our office,” and that the Embassy planned on “requesting the return of these files before the end of the year.” But just after that email, Trump’s executive order halted all follow-to-join processing. Since then, Plummer has received no updates about Jane, and USCIS has announced it will no longer process follow-to-join applications in Uganda. Instead, all those cases will be moved to Nairobi, Kenya, added to the applications already there. “Every time they redesign the process it takes time to figure out how things will work. Meanwhile, I have some client standing in the parking lot outside our office every day asking, ‘Do you have an update about my family?’” said Plummer. “It’s excruciating.”

It’s not just the bureaucratic re-routing that is holding up the process. Another dramatic impetus for the drop in refugee arrivals is that USCIS is assigning about half of its Refugee Affairs Division officers to the border and to asylum offices in the U.S. interior instead of abroad, Strack said, which has a dramatic effect on USCIS’ capacity to do refugee interviews.

Under past administrations the reverse has been true: Asylum officers were occasionally sent abroad to help screen refugees, especially under the Obama administration, which ordered as many asylum officers as necessary to help screen enough refugees to reach the ceiling, she said. (The Obama administration came just shy of its 85,000 ceiling in fiscal year 2016, with 84,994 refugees.)

With only half the resettlement officers working abroad as usual, the Department of Homeland Security has had to cut back drastically on trips for employees to screen refugees in those countries, known as circuit rides. DHS cut its circuit rides to fewer than five locations abroad in the first quarter of this fiscal year, which began in October, resettlement sources said. That’s less than one-third the usual amount in that same time period in previous administration. The rides were also shorter, staffed with fewer officers and included none to the Middle East, multiple resettlement sources confirmed. And while DHS has added more locations to its second quarter, the rides will remain much shorter than their usual six-to-eight-week duration, and still include no Middle East locations. That’s because the agency anticipated that updated security or processing requirements would force them to re-interview anyone from these countries after the end of Trump’s October executive order, or that certain categories of refugees could be d-prioritized.

This lack of circuit rides has caused countless refugees to watch their medical screenings and background checks expire, said Erol Kekic, executive director of the Immigration and Refugee Program for the resettlement agency Church World Service. On their circuit rides, DHS conducts interviews with refugees who have already undergone about two years of checks. “Every single process in refugee resettlement takes time and has an expiration date,” said Kekic. “They need to be sending circuit rides out to move people through the system, and refugees who are interviewed in the third and fourth quarter of this year won’t be booked for travel until next year.”

These delays have already cut down the expected number of yearly refugees to a fraction of previous administrations’ goals, but the worst might be yet to come. The Trump administration officially resumed accepting refugees from the 11 formerly banned countries in mid-January—but with the announcement came enhanced security measures not just for the individuals from those countries but for all refugees. The new measures include “additional screening for certain nationals of high-risk countries,” administering the program in a “more risk-based manner,” and “a periodic review and update of the refugee high-risk country list.”

As a result, a State Department spokeswoman said that “processing time may be slower” while they implement additional security “to identify threats to public safety and national security,” and processing times may also be impacted by “security checks, medical checks and the operational capacity of DHS.” A USCIS representative did not return repeated requests for comment. Strack says that the security measures were enhancements to the overall integrity of the process, and she said the agency could not share more details about the checks because it was classified information.

But for resettlement workers, that lack of detail about process changes might be the most frustrating part. “We just know they will be additionally screened, but what does that mean?” said Kekic. “Is that going to take 3 months or 3 days? What is the approval rate?”

Kekic’s comments are part of a broader chorus of complaints about a lack of communication from the federal government at the same time they’re making such dramatic changes to the resettlement process. “We used to have regular meetings that the State Department would coordinate, and we’d talk about things happening on the regional level,” Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs for the resettlement nonprofit HIAS said. “But those haven’t happened since the inauguration,” she said.

With so little from the administration to persuade them otherwise, the people I spoke to in the resettlement world all agreed on one thing: The Trump administration is more than happy to stay far below that 45,000-refugee ceiling. “Past administrations have looked at the ceiling as a goal,” said Strack, who served in the federal government 26 years and in refugee resettlement the past 12. “That’s not the case for this administration.”

Meanwhile, refugees like Jane are left waiting for updates on their cases, clinging to hope they will recover their family again. “Before I got attacked I was with the children. It was meant to separate me from them forever, since it was meant to kill me,” said Jane. “But I knew as long as I still have life we can get back together. So I still pray for that to happen.”


 

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