Across the country and at U.S. embassies around the world, refugees and resettlement officers alike are counting down to October 24. While much attention has been focused on President Donald Trump’s three tries at barring citizens of several majority Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S., less attention has been paid to parallel orders banning refugee resettlement, set to expire this Tuesday. Theoretically, this will allow agencies to resume normal processing for thousands of backlogged cases. But after months of being continually blindsided by a hostile White House, refugees and their advocates feel far more anxiety than relief.
Whether Trump extends the refugee ban or lets it expire, such a hostile administration means that uncertainty looms for those trying to escape hardship abroad to resettle in the U.S. “Under this administration, we never know what’s coming. We’re just scrambling like everyone else after each announcement,” said Melanie Nezer, a senior vice president at HIAS, a more than century-old advocacy group that works with the U.S. government to settle refugees. While one of the main purposes of her organization is to guide refugees through the resettlement process, Nezer said, now the process resembles a high-stakes guessing game for refugees. “We just don’t know what to tell them,” she said. “This leaves them very afraid and very discouraged.” Many blocked by Trump’s order had already spent months or years in the vetting process, and now find themselves stranded in dangerous or impoverished situations.
“We just don’t know what to tell them. This leaves them very afraid and very discouraged.”
On the campaign trail, Trump said refugees were a “Trojan horse” — a set of foreigners bent on infiltrating and destroying America from within — and warned constituents to “lock their doors.” Since taking office, he’s moved swiftly to institutionalize these sentiments. In the first week of his administration, alongside the so-called Muslim ban, Trump issued a moratorium on the entrance of all refugees and a permanent ban on Syrian refugees. Faced with rounds of protests and litigation, the administration dropped the initial order but followed it with a second, similar ban in March. The issue made its way to the Supreme Court, where justices upheld many of the ban’s restrictions, a move that brought thousands of resettlement cases worldwide to a halt, including those of at least 24,000 would-be refugees who had already completed years of vetting and been assigned to resettlement agencies in the U.S.
The chaos caused by the executive orders, lawsuits, and court rulings caused such disruption that the U.S. only managed to settle about half of its 110,000 refugee quota over the last fiscal year, bringing in just over 53,000 people. In many cases, refugees who had undergone years of processing had their cases frozen indefinitely. “By now, many of them have lost hope,” said Nezer. The vetting process for refugees comprises a lengthy series of tests, including medical examinations, in-person interviews, and background screenings, which can take up to 24 months — not counting the months or years spent going through the United Nations’s separate registration process. Many of these clearances have expiration dates, and the indefinite delays caused by the ban mean that many refugees have undergone repeated vetting, or lost their cases altogether.
Even if Trump lets the ban expire without issuing a new order, he’s already set aggressive policies to curtail the number of refugees that will be allowed to enter the U.S. On September 26, the administration announced a cap of 45,000 refugees for the coming fiscal year, down from the 110,000 set by President Barack Obama in the previous year and well below the previous low of 67,000, set by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. According to a report by the New Yorker, the 45,000 figure represents a “compromise” between the majority of White House advisers, who urged the Trump to set the cap higher, and a small, hardline coalition led by presidential adviser Stephen Miller, who pushed for a number as low as 15,000.
Notably absent from the decision making were the resettlement agencies and experts. Historically, organizations like HIAS, a government resettlement partner, have had a cordial, even cooperative, relationship with the government. “I’ve worked in Washington for years, under the Bush administration, and under Obama,” said Nezer. “And we always had access to the people making policy. Sometimes we’d move them, and sometimes we wouldn’t, but they always respected the fact that we’re the experts when it comes to refugee resettlement.” Now, she said, “things are completely different. We have no way in.”
The drastic cuts in the refugee resettlement program send “exactly the wrong message to the world at exactly the wrong time” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International. Amnesty estimates there are at least 1.2 million refugees in need of resettlement — out of the 65 million displaced people worldwide — but the international community has been increasingly reluctant to open their doors. The U.S. actions are fueling global trend of richer nations “turning inward,” said Shah, fueling a “new normal” that criminalizes, stigmatizes, and shuts out refugees. Trump also slashed the U.S. budget for foreign aid, compounding global shortfalls in funding.
“It’s an impossible task, trying to plan and implement programs, while knowing that at any moment Trump can make an announcement and change everything.”
Refugee advocates remain fearful that another executive order could send these crises even deeper into chaos. “It’s an impossible task, trying to plan and implement programs, while knowing that at any moment Trump can make an announcement and change everything,” said Nezer. “There is no real process under this administration.”
Even if Trump allows refugee resettlement to proceed after October 24, there is reason to believe the administration will use other means to obstruct the process. According to Reuters, the White House is considering proposals to pause the refugee family reunification program and expand the already intensive vetting process for refugees from select countries. The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department have so far declined to comment, although they did not deny that such a review process is underway. The looming conclusion of the review throws into doubt whether the Trump administration would reach even the drastically reduced refugee quota in the coming year, advocates said. “We will have to monitor very closely to make sure we even get the 45,000 in,” said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Trump’s ban on letting travelers from six majority-Muslim countries into the U.S., which is still being fought out in court, would have a deep impact on refugee resettlement if it was revived, Nezer said. “The ban blocks people from Iran, Syria, and Somalia, which currently make up about a third of the resettlement caseload.” Yet the conflation of the Muslim ban and the refugee ban also carries a contradiction: Fewer than half of the refugees admitted in fiscal year 2016 were Muslim. While Trump promised the U..S would prioritize resettling Christian refugees, the cuts in overall admission means the U.S. is bringing in thousands fewer Christians as well.
Though Trump repeatedly uses national security to justify his vendetta against refugees, many experts point out that his policies may actually be putting the country at greater risk. Amnesty’s Shah warned that actions like the refugee ban are “pushing the global refugee support system to the point of collapse” and links between that sort of desperation and extremism are clear. The U.S. bans also play directly into the propaganda of groups like the Islamic State, while alienating allies, weakening strategic relationships, and compromising the security of Americans abroad, said Nezer. Still, the administration has been unwilling to amend its hardline rhetoric. As it again moves to push its Muslim ban, there is no reason to believe the president will soften his line on refugees. “We expect the coming weeks will be big ones for federal policy on refugees,” said Fisher, of International Refugee Assistance Project. “We will be watching.”