By: Karoun Demirjian and Abigail Hauslohner
A bipartisan group of senators is demanding a full accounting of refugee processing numbers from the Trump administration, as a global moratorium on Homeland Security officials interviewing resettlement applicants drags into its fourth month.
The Department of Homeland Security has not resumed overseas interviews with refugee applicants since President Trump released his first executive order to ban immigrants and visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations and halt all refugee arrivals for 120 days, according to resettlement organizations and Homeland Security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That policy is continuing, they say, despite federal court orders putting significant parts of Trump’s executive immigration orders on hold.
“Sometimes there is a small pause of a few days, while we gear up for the fiscal year — but we’ve never had a four-month suspension of the program,” said Jen Smyers, director of refugee policy and advocacy with the Church World Service, one of nine official U.S. refugee resettlement agencies, which has begun cutting back overseas staff. “Refugee processing has ground to a halt.”
Concerns that the Trump administration’s efforts to bar new refugees are continuing despite court rulings are part of the inspiration behind a letter senators are sending to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, demanding a detailed explanation of policy and a reckoning on the current state of processing applications.
In it, 11 Democrats and five Republicans ask the administration to clarify its goal intake of refugees for fiscal 2017, specify the manner and speed with which it plans to process refugee referrals, identify how many cases are currently being processed and detail what department personnel changes have been made that could affect the quality and pace of refugee admissions.
“This administration needs to be transparent about its refugee policies,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who spearheaded the letter, said in a statement. “Our nation should continue to be a safe haven for those fleeing harm and if this administration is closing the door on refugees, Congress and the American people have a right to know.”
All refugees hoping to be resettled in the United States must submit to an interview with a DHS official, as well as other forms of vetting. But several major refugee resettlement and advocacy groups, as well as two DHS officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were unaware of any such interviews taking place since Trump placed a temporary ban on resettlement in January — a measure that was quickly blocked in federal court.
As part of his executive orders on immigration, Trump sought to scale down the number of refugees approved by the Obama administration for fiscal 2017 to 50,000 from 110,000. Some refugee advocates say the president chose that number because the United States has already resettled 40,000 refugees this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, noting that DHS has moved resources and personnel previously dedicated to processing refugee applications elsewhere.
A DHS spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. But a DHS official who was not authorized to speak on the record confirmed that “we haven’t sent anyone overseas to do these interviews since January” and that while the recent court injunctions against Trump’s executive orders on immigration “have allowed refugees who already have visas to enter . . . that is about it.”
Senators cited those recent court orders in their letter to Tillerson and Kelly, reminding them that the federal court decision “currently prevents the implementation of portions of this Executive Order, including the entire section addressing the [U.S. Refugee Admissions Program]” as they asked for details about when and how the Trump administration plans to take in more refugees.
Refugee programs have come under intense political scrutiny in the wake of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe, with lawmakers angling to bar entry to certain categories of refugees — such as those from Syria, Iraq and other countries beset by the Islamic State — until the U.S. government can better guarantee they are not a national security risk.
Trump’s executive orders have gone a step further, envisioning the four-month, across-the-board halt to processing and admission. The current moratorium on interviews is similarly global and has been in place for over three months.
Advocates say that at this point, the general message they are getting from U.S. officials is “ ‘please don’t send us any more [refugees]’. . . because there’s no reason to raise their expectations, if we already have X number of people in the pipeline and the [resettlement] numbers are going to be low enough,” said Devon Cone, director of overseas resettlement for HIAS, another of the nine resettlement agencies. “Newly identified refugees that really need resettlement are not going to have anywhere to go.”
Congress budgeted for 85,000 refugee visas this year — shy of the 110,000 the Obama administration envisioned but on par with refugee quotas the past few years. The current resettlement tally of about 40,000 arrivals has the government about halfway to that goal with less than five months to go.
But the pace of arrivals has slowed noticeably since Trump took office, resettlement officials report, going from about 2,000-2,200 per week in the last few months of the Obama administration to 400 per week in the wake of Trump’s first executive order. Since mid-March, those numbers have leveled out at about 900 refugee arrivals per week, according to resettlement agencies and a spokesman from the State Department.
That pace, advocates say, is far too slow to let the country meet its normal refugee resettlement quota. Senators are also specifically worried that it could leave categories of sympathetic cases in limbo. In their letter, senators specifically asked for specific data and policy guarantees surrounding genocide survivors, Iraqis who helped the U.S. mission (and can no longer take advantage of a now-shuttered special immigrant visa category), and family reunification cases — which advocates say make up about 70 percent of the refugees in the U.S. pipeline.
There are about 50,000 would-be refugees in the pipeline whose applications have already been approved. But at the slower pace, resettlement agencies worry that refugees’ time-sensitive medical and security clearances will expire as they wait — leaving once-approved individuals and families ineligible to come to the United States. Agency representatives have said they have had difficulty getting the DHS to rerun expired clearances as the department has diverted personnel, largely to deal with matters at the U.S. border.
Though a DHS spokeswoman did not return a request for comment, a State Department spokesman said in an emailed statement that the department is “continuing to admit refugees” in “conformity with the Department of Justice’s guidance regarding the Court Order.” He said that process “includes scheduling travel for refugees who have been fully screened and are otherwise approved for travel” and said new refugee pre-screening interviews “continue to be scheduled and conducted” around the world.
The State Department spokesman deferred to the DHS to comment on that department’s refugee processing interviews and added that he could not speculate about annual refugee quotas “due to a variety of factors, including the ongoing litigation and uncertainty regarding future funding levels.”
Advocates and resettlement officials say that at the current pace, there is no way the country could take in more than about 65,000 refugees — 20,000 short of what there is money budgeted to do this fiscal year.
But what concerns them most is what happens next fiscal year, when the pipeline dries up — either through attrition, as clearances of would-be refugees expire or because there is no one new coming into the pipeline as those currently in line are accepted and their cases are cleared.
In the meantime, resettlement agencies in the United States are eyeing drastic cuts that they warn will make it difficult to get services up and running again, should the Trump administration decide to increase the flow — especially if he does so without warning.
“It’s a real machine — it takes a while to chug on and chug off,” Cone said, citing the slowdown in refugee arrivals that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001, “for a short period of time. But it took almost 10 years to get up and running again.”