Less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court partially revived President Donald Trump’s travel ban, Amina Ibrahim was outside her local refugee resettlement office in Columbus, Ohio, grasping for answers about how this latest decision would affect her 4-year-old son, Mohamed.
Five months have passed since Trump’s January executive order derailed Amina’s yearslong effort to reunite with Mohamed, who is a Somali refugee like his mother. In 2015, Amina was granted asylum in Ohio with her daughters. But since then Mohamed has remained in Kenya, his resettlement bogged down in the customary years of false starts, interagency bureaucracy, and numerous security clearances made worse by Trump’s on-again off-again ban.
Under the Supreme Court’s decision Monday, which will remain in effect until at least October, when the justices hear arguments in the case, Trump’s ban can apply only to individuals “who lack any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” That wording is already generating confusion over how it will be applied in practice, introducing yet another obstacle in a process that’s been defined by chaos.
“Once you throw a wrench into the refugee resettlement program, it isn’t like you can take the wrench out and everything is smooth again.”
Trump’s travel ban triggered six months of week-to-week policy whiplash from the White House to the State Department that all but ground the machinery’s complex gears to a halt. But starting and stopping the “resettlement pipeline,” as it’s widely known, isn’t as easy as signing a piece of paper in the Oval Office. The upheaval created by the on-again, off-again court rulings has effectively already achieved Trump’s goal of preventing as many refugees as possible from entering the country.
Refugee resettlement is a massive and complex enterprise that relies on the sheer will of its participants and order among its organizations to be successful. “Things get canceled, security clearances expire,” said Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. “Once you throw a wrench into the refugee resettlement program, it isn’t like you can take the wrench out and everything is smooth again. It’s slow going.”
Mohamed should be protected under the Supreme Court’s recent decision because he has family already in the U.S., but Angie Plummer, the director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbus, is worried his case will be stalled yet again.
“The damage was done after the first executive order,” Plummer said, explaining that refugee resettlement in the U.S. has been in total disarray since Trump’s first week in office.
More than 46,000 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. so far this fiscal year, just under the limit of the 50,000 Trump outlined in his executive order, but well shy of the 110,000 that the Obama administration had told resettlement agencies to expect. The State Department quietly lifted Trump’s ceiling in May in an apparent acceptance that Trump’s ban wouldn’t stick and reportedly to help resettlement agencies better manage the two-year process.
The number of refugees entering the country was expected to nearly double to more than 1,500 per week, but the Supreme Court’s decision now casts those figures into doubt. Mark Hetfield, president of global immigrant aid society HIAS, said the best-case scenario for the year is now about 70,000 total resettlements, compared to the 84,995 admitted last year.
“These executive orders have definitely caused irreparable damage to refugees, to America’s reputation, to the humanitarian community, Hetfield said. “We’re doing our best to reverse that, but it is pretty much irreparable.”
Trump’s ban specifically blacklists travelers from six nations, but it applies to all refugees regardless of their country of origin. Only two countries listed in the ban — Syria and Somalia — were in the top five last year for total refugees sent to the U.S. The other biggest contributors were the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and Iraq. About half of the refugees accepted by the U.S. in 2016 were Muslim.
“Tens of thousands of refugees overseas are now wondering whether they’ll actually be admitted.”
As of last week, 97,367 refugees had either completed the two-year application and security screening process or were prepared to undergo the final round of interviews, according to Mia Witte, associate director of resettlement at Church World Service, one of nine national organizations that works with the the State Department to find new homes for refugees. Witte said two-thirds of the approved refugees awaiting resettlement have friends or family members already in the U.S., and the concern is that the rest may not be covered by the Supreme Court’s “bona fide relationship” exception.
“Tens of thousands of refugees overseas are now wondering whether they’ll actually be admitted,” Witte said. “Right now we’re trying to still figure out what this ruling actually means in practice.”
Trump has ordered government agencies to take action on enforcing the travel ban within 72 hours. The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department said they would implement the president’s instructions in an “organized” and “professional” way, but both agencies declined to clarify how refugees would be affected.
Refugee groups are once again bracing for airport chaos and last-minute trip cancellations. Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, the organization named as lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case challenging the ban, explained that by the time refugees are prepared to travel to the U.S., they have already cleared extensive background checks and taken irrevocable steps with the expectation of finally finding asylum.
“There were many flights canceled for people who had been waiting and gone through years of processing,” Fisher said of Trump’s first ban in January. “Those individuals had sold everything they had and turned over their housing to somebody else.”
The resettlement agencies hope that refugees who have already entered the resettlement pipeline will qualify has having a “bona fide relationship” with a U.S. entity. But Fisher is worried that the government could attempt to limit admissions to people who have family members in the country.
“A lot depends on the nature of the interpretation of the bona fide relationship,” Fisher said. “If the refugee program has to go through every case in the pipeline to see which ones do and do not have familial relations that the U.S. will accept as bona fide, that could significantly delay admissions.”
Mohamed, who is waiting on his DNA test and security clearance from the DHS, could fall victim to that interpretation bureaucracy, and find himself in a wilderness of delays. The questions surrounding what “bona fide relationship” means in practice may not be resolved until the fall when the court begins its next term.
Trump has claimed that the travel ban is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, and the Supreme Court ruled that the government’s “interest in preserving national security” outweighs the “hardships” caused to people affected by the ban. After the ruling Monday, Trump tweeted that it was a “great day for America’s future security and safety.”
“We’re certainly not in a position to influence other countries to do the right thing as a result of the actions attempted by the White House.”
Critics say it’s entirely unnecessary. Hetfield pointed out that every refugee who enters the country “is subject to extreme scrutiny and extreme interviewing.” They undergo fingerprinting and biometric data collection, and have their names “scanned across multiple agencies and international databases,” he said.
Plummer also said the Department of Homeland Security has been slow to issue security clearances and send out “circuit riders,” the convoys that handle interviews with refugees abroad. The delays have added to an ever-increasing backlog of refugees, many of whom have waited years to be granted asylum in the U.S.
“If they’re not scheduling interviews in the field, then nobody’s getting approved,” Plummer said. “The executive order’s mission can be accomplished despite the fact that there’s a partial injunction.”
About 3 million people have been resettled in the U.S. since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which established the current standards for screening refugees and admitting them into the country. Not a single one of those refugees has been linked to a fatal act of terrorism on American soil.
Uncertainty over the fate of the U.S. refugee program has global implications. There are nearly 22.5 million refugees worldwide, and more than half of them are children under 18, according to the United Nations. The fear now is that other countries will follow Trump’s lead and shut their doors, exacerbating the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
“We’re certainly not in a position to influence other countries to do the right thing as a result of the actions attempted by the White House and thwarted by the courts,” Hetfield said. “All we can do is hope that as many refugees have their lives saved as possible.”
As for Amina, she’s done waiting for the system to work on its own. She’s already supplied her DNA sample needed to move Mohamed’s case forward and recently cleared the travel documents that grant her special approval to travel outside the U.S. Once her Kenyan visa is cleared, she’ll fly to Nairobi with her 3-year-old daughter, Mumtaz. They hope to bring Mohamed back with them.
Cover photograph by Adriane Ohanesian