Chris Kelley and his colleagues had already rented apartments and collected furniture for their next batch of arrivals to Texas. These were refugee families who'd languished in camps for years while being screened by the US State Department, but had finally been approved to come to America.
Then, on Friday, President Donald Trump issued his executive order halting refugee resettlement for 120 days, and indefinitely when it came to refugees from Syria. All at once, everything changed.
"We were just notified this morning that these trips were canceled, and we have received no instructions or guidance as to what happens after the 120-day ban," Kelley, the communications director for Refugee Services Texas resettlement agency, told me Monday. He wasn't sure if those families would ever be allowed in the country, and noted that almost all of the refugees were women and kids and were joining relatives already in Texas. "There are many long faces and lots of tears," he said.
Trump's four-month moratorium dashed the hopes of about 20,000 refugees—mainly women and children—slated to enter the US, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated, and his indefinite ban on Syrians denies countless other desperate individuals protection. The sweeping order prioritizes refugees who are religious minorities (which has been taken to mean Christians), reduces the overall number of refugees the US will accept in 2017, and blocks visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. The Trump administration claims these measures are necessary to protect the nation from terrorism.
But what critics have derided as a "Muslim ban" has been met with global protests, lawsuits, and dissent from State Department employees. Meanwhile, the rejected refugees are stuck in limbo—uncertain whether they'll end up in Canada, Europe, the US, or just remain in the camps for the rest of their lives.
Historically, the US has resettled more refugees than any other nation. But the president has the power to dictate numbers and even put a halt on the program, Chris Boian, senior communications officer for the UNHCR, told me. He said his organization was "deeply concerned about the uncertainty" of those assigned to resettle in the US and willing to negotiate with the Trump administration, but had not been approached.
"People are overwhelmed—their question is now, what are we living for?" a humanitarian aid worker in southeast Turkey's refugee camps, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me of refugees' response to the ban.
Increasingly, refugees feel they have no options to relocate, the worker told me, since the US has followed other countries in limiting its aid. Many refugees now have "zero hope" to enter Europe since Macedonia closed its borders and Turkey stopped allowing refugees to travel west. Even Canada decreased its quota for 2017, the aid worker noted.
"The accumulative effect of all these laws against refugees is taking a toll on their mental health," the worker said. "There's a lot of sadness, isolation, and feeling lost." She said some refugees whose resettlement was halted may attempt to travel by boat to Italy, but she doubted many would make the perilous journey if they believed they still had a chance to enter the US. More than 5,000 refugees died on boats headed to Italy last year alone.
Noor (who asked I not use his last name), a Syrian refugee living in the Turkish city of Gaziantep who has always wanted to live in the US, told me he would not consider the boat ride because of its risk, even though he felt "trapped."
"Living in the US is the dream of the dream, but to me, it was impossible even before Trump's ban," said Noor, 28, an Aleppo native with a degree in English literature, said, explaining that he understood the US only accepted families and very vulnerable individuals. Noor said he had instead tried to gain entrance into Canada—to no avail. "I'm in constant uncertainty, fear of the future," he said.
VICE News Tonight goes inside a refugee camp:
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has implied he wants to step up the country's efforts, tweeting in response to Trump's ban that "to those fleeing war, persecution and terror, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith." (Trudeau is reportedly planning a visit to the White House soon, where he will discuss Canada's policy with Trump.)
Canadian immigration expert Sharryn Aiken, an associate law professor at Queen's University in Ontario, told me it was clear Trudeau "is behind-the-scenes crafting a policy response" to Trump's order, and said she was "cautiously optimistic that Canada will step up."
Boian would not say whether Canada had presented a concrete resettlement proposal, but he told me UNHCR was searching for solutions for those refugees denied resettlement by the US. Still, finding an alternative home is a challenge, since he said it was "unclear which countries have a capacity for more" refugees.
As international partners scramble to support shocked families, US immigration experts remain convinced that at least part of Trump's order can indeed be dismantled in court. Trump has legal authority to halt overall resettlement, but his apparent intention to favor Christian refugees violates the First Amendment, immigration attorney Ally Bolour told me.
"If you talk to any attorney, really, the text of the executive order is unconstitutional," Bolour, who represents asylum seekers in Los Angeles, told me. "The First Amendment, separation of church and state, applies to everyone and every activity the US government does, so you can't have a religious test."
The "Muslim ban" also violates international law, said Jim Hathaway, the director of refugee and asylum law at the University of Michigan's law school. He told me that the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US has signed, prohibits discrimination of any kind.
No lawsuit has yet been filed on the grounds of religious discrimination, those the order has been challenged by five different suits so far. The first four only applied to refugees who had already arrived in US airports, not to those awaiting resettlement. The fifth lawsuit, filed by Washington State's attorney general and joined by several large tech companies, argues that the president's actions are harming the state's families, residents, and economy.
Establishing discrimination would be the most promising legal challenge to the order, said Andrew Schoenholtz, deputy director for Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Migration. But he said proving discrimination would be much more difficult than it seems.
"There's evidence from when the president was a candidate [that the order was intended to ban Muslims]… but the order itself doesn't read that way—it uses national security [as its justification]," Schoenholz said. He claimed Congress would be more successful at drawing up an eventual political solution, particularly if Trump continued to suspend the refugee program. "If the president said he's totally ending the refugee program Congress could push back—they created the program. But would there be enough pushback from both the House and the Senate? We'll see."
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