It has been four years since Deborah Jane was attacked by a gang of men led by her abusive ex-husband. The men scalded the then-39-year-old mother of four with acid as punishment for speaking out about the domestic abuse suffered by many women in her rural Ugandan community. Maimed and fearing for her life, Jane fled to Nairobi, Kenya, where, after a lengthy process, she won a coveted spot on the list of refugees to be resettled in the United States. She arrived alone in Columbus, Ohio, in January 2016, and immediately applied to have her children — the youngest of whom was 4 years old — to join her in the U.S. A year later, around the same time Donald Trump assumed the presidency, her paperwork was approved. “We just needed the children to do interviews, medical — a few things, and then they’d be able to come,” Jane told The Intercept, “But since then, there has been only silence.”
Jane’s soft voice is weary. Now 43, she works as a home-care nurse by day and pulls overnight shifts at a local bakery while also attending business school, but her fight to reunite with her children has become a full-time job of its own. She has lobbied numerous times at the offices of both Ohio senators — Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman — and has sought legal help from refugee advocacy groups and local churches, but feels no closer to an answer. “No one can tell me what the real problem is — only that their cases are not moving. I think the current administration just doesn’t want refugees like me to come here. I don’t know why,” she said. “But I don’t believe God wants me to be separated from my children forever. I will keep praying. I will never give up.”
“I think the current administration just doesn’t want refugees like me to come here. I don’t know why.”
The roadblocks Jane faces are part of what advocates describe as an apparently concerted effort by the Trump White House to systematically dismantle the nation’s refugee resettlement program. Some of this onslaught has been explicit: As the world’s already-unprecedented refugee population continues to climb, the Trump administration is considering slashing the annual refugee cap to 25,000 for the 2019 fiscal year, down from this year’s historic low of 45,000, the New York Times reported earlier this month. The administration last year suspended all refugee resettlement for 120 days and diverted resources and personnel away from refugee processing, further weakening an already-backlogged system. These disruptions have caused a cascade of delays and interagency confusion, while a lack of transparency leaves refugees and advocates alike at the mercy of an increasingly antagonistic system. Sources familiar with the program describe chaos amid shifting security protocols, with particular detriment to refugees from the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries.
The president is expected to announce his recommended refugee quota in September, ahead of the October 1 start of the fiscal year. Regardless of what he decides, however, advocates report that the refugee quota is no longer a reliable indicator of actual refugee admissions. At the current pace, the administration is on track to settle about 20,000 refugees — out of a global population of roughly 25 million — by September 30, the end of the fiscal year. In 2017, the U.S. admitted only 33,000 refugees, marking the first time that the country resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world. “In the past, refugee numbers fluctuated at times, but it was always understood to be temporary, with the goal to return to the normal numbers around 95,000,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project, “but this is different. It seems as if the administration is trying to rewrite the status quo — a status quo that is very hostile to refugees, and immigrants in general.”
A refugee ceiling of 25,000 would be the lowest since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, and it would follow the hard-line approach to all types of immigration touted by White House adviser Stephen Miller. Last year, Miller pushed for even more aggressive cuts to the refugee resettlement program — suggesting a cap of 15,000 — but faced pushback from other administration officials, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke. With Tillerson’s and Duke’s departures earlier this year, refugee advocates fear that Miller may prevail this time around. “We don’t get any insider information. We just hear what the government chooses to announce to the public, and then we have to adjust accordingly,” said Adam Clark, director of World Relief Durham, which has a State Department contract to resettle refugees. When Trump set a cap of 45,000 last year, Clark said, roughly 60,000 already-vetted refugees were left in limbo. “Since Trump took office, we’ve learned to prepare for the worst. More cuts would be tragic, but they wouldn’t surprise us.”
The 120-day ban on refugee admissions expired last October, but the resettlement system has struggled to recover. The administration has burdened the program with new “extreme vetting” measures and additional procedures, drastically slowing a sprawling interagency process that already takes an average of two years to complete. The FBI is one of the agencies that runs background checks on refugees, and as the Daily Beast recently reported, its turnover for those cases has dropped from hundreds a week to the single digits. Approximately 100 officers from the Refugee Affairs Division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, known as USCIS, are now handling domestic asylum cases, according to an agency official. As a result, there are fewer personnel available to process refugee cases abroad. Other sources close to the issue estimate that the backlog of applications includes over 200,000 refugees abroad who are awaiting interviews by U.S. officials, with about only 30 refugee officers available to conduct these assessments worldwide. As a result, applicant interviews — a prerequisite to resettlement — have been suspended or delayed, often causing medical clearances and other elements of their applications to expire.
It is likely that the refugee program will have to be rebuilt if a future U.S. administration moves toward welcoming more refugees.
The government does not publicize the precise timing or locations of circuit rides — the trips USCIS officials make abroad to conduct interviews and decide on applications — citing security concerns. USCIS spokesperson Michael Bars told The Intercept that while “USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis,” the government began in early 2017 to reassign some refugee officers to the Asylum Division. “Ultimately, this diversion of resources compromises the ability for officers to conduct interviews abroad for individuals legitimately seeking refugee status.”
The result has been the reduction of the overall refugee flow to a bare trickle. “The pipeline has dried up,” said Clark of World Relief. “When there aren’t enough people abroad to interview and process the cases, there is no way to keep the stream of vetted refugees coming.” In the past year, Clark said, his Durham office has seen only about one-third of its usual number of cases. “In 10 years of this work, I’ve seen numbers fluctuate somewhat, but the changes under the Trump administration have been by far the most drastic,” he said. “This feels like a different kind of change.”
The drastic decrease in refugee admissions has led to the weakening of decades-old systems that help refugees transition to life in their new home, making it likely that the program will have to be rebuilt if a future U.S. administration moves toward welcoming more refugees. Many refugee centers have shut down, while many others have been forced to cut staff, said Clark. “What made matters worse was, at the beginning of the fiscal year 2016, when [President Barack Obama] was pushing to take more refugees, many of us were told to beef up our staff in order to be able to accept 85,000 to 100,000. Then, after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the number was slashed to 45,000. Several hundred staff members lost their jobs.”
The institutional slow-down is just one element of Trump’s multipronged overhaul of the system. A closer look at refugee arrival data suggests the administration is also driving the program toward specific ethnic and demographic trends. Last month, the Refugee Council USA, an umbrella organization of resettlement programs contracted to work with the State Department, issued a damning report card on the administration’s performance in the first 10 months of the fiscal year. The report highlighted the disparity in nations of origin: As of July, the U.S. had settled fewer than a third of the number of Middle Eastern refugees expected, and barely half of those expected from Africa. In contrast, the country has welcomed roughly 75 percent of expected East Asian refugees, and all but fulfilled its projected number for Europeans.
“We’re getting fewer Afghans, no Syrians — the pattern seems clear.”
The Middle East, which hosts some of the world’s largest refugee populations, has been particularly neglected in terms of circuit rides, according to recent media reports that indicate that refugee processing in the region has essentially been halted. Indeed, as of July 31, the U.S. had admitted only 221 refugees from the Middle East, according to State Department data. Bars, the USCIS spokesperson, declined to comment on these allegations, but said the agency works with the State Department to determine the routes for those interviews. (The State Department did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.) On the ground, resettlement workers are noticing the difference. “We’ve definitely seen a shift in the nationalities of our clients since Trump,” said Clark. “We’re getting fewer Afghans, no Syrians — the pattern seems clear.”
Sirine Shebaya, senior staff attorney at the national civil rights and legal organization Muslim Advocates, said the religious makeup of the incoming refugee pool is striking as well. “Despite the fact that over half of the world’s refugees come from three Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan — admissions of Muslim-identifying refugees fell by 94 percent between January and November 2017,” she said. As of May, only about 2,000 Muslim refugees had been admitted this fiscal year, down from 38,900 in fiscal year 2016. Syria, Iraq, and Somalia are no longer among the top five countries of origin for refugees, reversing a trend that had taken shape in recent years. Shebaya blames a combination of burdensome vetting measures, Trump’s myriad bans, and an overall anti-Muslim sentiment for the reversal. “It seems that the government is intent on making it as difficult as possible for Muslims to come to the United States, whether as refugees or immigrants.”
Advocates are concerned “that the administration may use the shortfall in resettlements as an argument for lowering the ceiling,” Bates said. “It’s a strategic as well as moral failure to cut refugee resettlement at any time, but especially as we’re facing the worst crisis since World War II.” As it is, fewer than 1 percent of the worldwide refugee population can expect to be resettled, and Bates is worried that Trump’s race to the bottom will set a hostile example for other host countries. “Since Trump took office, we’ve seen many other nations start resettling fewer refugees, too. It’s a desperate time. And what happens next is really anyone’s guess.”