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Trump is quietly winning his war against refugees

The White House is strangling the U.S. refugee resettlement program to death with red tape.

by Nick Miriello and Keegan Hamilton
Feb 2 2018, 12:30pm

Adriane Ohanesian for VICE News

The U.S. is currently on pace to let in fewer than 20,000 refugees in the current fiscal year, well short of the already record-low total of 45,000 that the Trump administration agreed to accept in 2018, multiple sources involved in refugee resettlement told VICE News.

One of President Trump’s first moves in office was to sign an executive order that temporarily halted all refugee resettlement, and in the months since then his administration has quietly stifled the U.S. refugee program by enacting what experts say are labyrinthine security measures designed to slow the flow of refugees to a trickle.

“The administration is winning its war against refugees, and we see that every day,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the refugee resettlement agency HIAS. “The system is so messed up, and intentionally so. It’s not due to neglect. It’s an intentional effort to destroy the U.S. refugee program.”

The emerging consensus among people who work in refugee resettlement is that Trump has managed to enact a de facto ban on Muslim refugees in particular, despite multiple court rulings that such discrimination is unconstitutional. The administration’s new refugee restrictions have largely shut out Muslims fleeing conflicts in Somalia, Syria, and Iraq. In 2016, the U.S. accepted 84,995 refugees, and nearly 40,000 of them were Muslim.

Read: “Why haven't you come for me?” A family torn apart by Trump’s travel ban.

President Obama had planned to welcome 110,000 refugees in the fiscal year 2017, but in the end the Trump administration let in 53,716. While Congress has some input on refugee resettlement, the program is largely under the purview of the president, and the White House has broad authority to set restrictions and quotas.

The dramatic slowdown in refugee resettlement comes at a time of unprecedented global need, with more than 65 million people forcibly displaced around the world.

Shrinking the program

Nazanin Ash, vice president of public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, a national refugee resettlement agency, said the Trump administration is “excluding certain populations and shrinking the [refugee] program as much as possible, with policies that have no basis in cause or fact.” According to an analysis by IRC, as of last week:

  • Only 13 percent of refugees who have arrived since this fiscal year began in October identify as Muslim, compared to 48 percent the previous year.
  • By this time last year, Syrians made up 15 percent of refugee arrivals in the U.S. So far in 2018, they account for just 0.5 percent.
  • Only 81 Iraqi refugees have been resettled since the start of the fiscal year. Over the same stretch last year, the U.S. admitted 4,700 Iraqis.
  • Iraqis who helped the U.S. military aren’t receiving special treatment. So far this fiscal year, only 29 such Iraqi refugees have been allowed to resettle. Last year, the U.S. let in more than 3,000 of them.

Jen Smyers, who directs policy and advocacy at Church World Service, said the seven Muslim-majority countries targeted in Trump’s first refugee ban were “particularly impacted” over the last year. She attributed this slowdown to policy changes that were not part of executive orders or public memos, such as requiring refugees to provide years of addresses and contact information, an impossible request for people forced to flee their homes on short notice. The administration has also requested paperwork such as birth certificates, which are typically not issued by the governments of refugee-producing countries.

“It’s clear, and probably of no surprise to all of us who’ve been following this: There is not a good-faith effort to actually operate the program,” Smyers said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was too early to gauge the overall numbers for fiscal year 2018, and asked for caution, explaining that “refugee admissions rarely proceed at a steady pace.”

“It’s premature to predict the number of refugees that will ultimately be admitted in FY2018,” said Carter Langston, a spokesperson for the agency.

Separating families

After two years of stops and starts, Amina Ibrahim was the closest she’d been to reuniting with her 5-year-old son, Mohamed, in early January 2017. Both are Somali refugees, but they’ve been separated since 2015 when Amina won asylum in the United States along with her two daughters. While Amina resettled in Ohio, Mohamed was forced to stay behind in the care of a family friend in Kenya, his application delayed because of an unexpected move months prior.

Amina’s plan to bring Mohammed to the U.S. was on track, but then President Trump issued his first travel ban. Mohamed’s resettlement application, which had been years in the making, abruptly stalled. Now Amina fears he’ll never be allowed to enter the United States.

In an act of desperation, Amina last summer decided to take Mohamed’s case into her own hands. Against the advice of Plummer, she flew to Kenya in August to bring her son home. She knew — as a refugee from one of Trump’s targeted countries — that there were risks to traveling outside of the U.S. while the administration was defending its travel ban in the courts, but she’d already made up her mind.

Six months later, despite completing all the necessary interviews and paperwork, Amina again found herself boarding a flight to the U.S. without her only son. Worse, she flew back not knowing why his case, after all these years, still wasn’t approved.

“I did everything in my power,” Amina said in an interview Monday. “I didn’t find anyone who would speak with me.”

Angie Plummer, the executive director of community refugee and immigration services in Columbus, Ohio, said the constant changes to resettlement requirements are affecting her ability to reunite families like Amina and Mohamed. “Asking for documents and birth certificates from places that don’t produce them is a system designed to keep people out,” Plummer said.

According to Plummer, Amina is simply waiting for USCIS to conduct the final security review in Mohamed’s case. “They just need to open the file and read it,” Plummer said.

Lengthening red tape

Since Trump took office, decisions on cases have stalled out, and international trips known as “circuit rides,” in which USCIS officers conduct interviews with refugees, have become a rarity, resettlement officials said.

The suspensions, reviews, and security enhancements over the last 13 months have weighed heavily on a process already bloated by bureaucracy, refugee experts said. Hetfield described the various stops and starts, including the 120-day suspension of the program, as “paper walls” erected by the administration to purposely block resettlement.

Beyond the additional red tape, the administration has also reassigned key personnel at the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Larry Bartlett, the former head of refugee admissions under President Obama, has been put on temporary assignment to the State Department’s FOIA office. The fear now among people who work with refugees is that the White House will appoint a hard-liner to replace Bartlett, a move that one source said would be a “nail in the coffin” for the refugee resettlement program.

On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced a fresh round of "additional, enhanced security procedures" for refugees. The agency hasn’t released details, but according to a press release, the vetting will apply to “certain nationals of high-risk countries.”

Read: Trump has already harmed refugees regardless of Supreme Court ruling

A State Department spokesperson acknowledged the slowdown in processing times, but said it was a result of stricter guidelines, not from any intentional obstruction of the process.

“Additional vetting procedures are enabling departments and agencies to more thoroughly review applicants to identify threats to public safety and national security,” the spokesperson said in a statement to VICE News. “Processing time may be slower as we implement additional security vetting procedures.”

Resettlement workers said these additional security measures will be more damaging than helpful. Refugees already undergo an intense security screening that can take up to two years and involves a background check, medical testing, in-person interviews, and various interagency security checks. There hasn’t been a single fatal terrorist attack on U.S. soil involving a refugee since the program was established in 1980, a period in which 3 million refugees were resettled across the country.

“The administration is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Nina Zelic, director for refugee services at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. “Refugees already undergo the strictest security screenings of anybody coming into the U.S.”

When Amina left Kenya the first time, she agonized over the decision to leave Mohamed behind but ultimately decided that relocating to the U.S. would be best for both of them in the long term. She assumed it would only be a matter of time until he could join her in Ohio. But under Trump, her quest to reunite with Mohamed has transformed from a grueling study in patience to a confusing odyssey, increasingly absent of optimism or explanation.

“I never thought it was ever going to be this way,” Amina said. “But I’m running out of hope.”

Correction (Feb. 8, 6 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the total number of displaced people worldwide. The number, according to the United Nations, is estimated to be more than 65 million, not 17 million.

Cover image: Maddie McGarvey for VICE News