As soon as he entered the White House, President Donald Trump tried to close the border, barring refugees and other migrants from entering the United States. Today, although the initial travel restrictions have eased, the systematic exclusion of refugees is intensifying.
The so-called Muslim ban, signed by Trump in January 2017, triggered a public outcry by barring entry to travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. But one of the more obscure, and enduring, provisions of the executive order affected the whole world: a blanket ban on refugee admissions, denying entry to all refugees for 120 days. Although various parts of the ban have lapsed or been thwarted in court challenges, the restrictions on refugee admissions have persisted; admissions have plummeted, while the vetting process has hardened under the pretext of “national security.” In early 2018, the administration announced that it was tightening the screening procedures for 11 countries, nearly all majority-Muslim—Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Advocates say that the combination of the 2017 travel ban and intensified “security” screenings has stalled the processing of refugee cases from these countries.
Meanwhile, the State Department’s annual ceiling for refugee resettlement went from 110,000 in fiscal year 2016 to just 45,000 in 2018 and 30,000 in 2019. Trump has now instituted the lowest ceiling since the refugee program was created in 1980. And in practice, the White House seems to be aiming even lower: Fewer than 22,000 refugees arrived in 2018—just half of what was allowed.
Earlier this year, hard-liners in the White House were reportedly debating whether to zero out the program altogether. But the administration recently announced that it had settled on a cap of 18,000—another historic low. (Several Democratic presidential candidates have vowed to restore and expand the refugee cap.)
The lowered refugee cap has hit some communities especially hard. According to Refugees International, refugees from Muslim-majority countries plummeted to 11 percent of the total admitted between October 2018 and July 2019, in contrast to nearly half of admissions in the final year of the Obama administration. During that period, fewer than 650 refugees arrived from three of the nations subjected to the Muslim ban—Syria, Somalia, and Yemen—even though they are facing some of world’s worst humanitarian crises. Under the lowered caps, admissions fell for all religious groups. In fiscal 2018, Christians fleeing persecution in the Middle East made up about 70 percent of new refugees, while Muslims, who had made up the majority of admitted refugees under Obama, fell to about 15 percent.
“We’re in the midst of the largest refugee crisis in recorded history,” said Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president of public affairs with the humanitarian organization HIAS. “So the number really should be going up, not coming down.”
The United Nations’ official count of refugees has reached about 26 million worldwide, a number that doesn’t include the 41 million who have been displaced within their own countries or the 3.5 million seeking asylum in other countries.
Although Trump’s drive to deport the undocumented might inflict more visible damage to migrant communities, the “loss” of the refugees who never arrive imposes a different kind of burden on the resettled families who are awaiting reunification with loved ones abroad. There have been reports of disrupted studies, upended marriage plans, and even death, among those whose travel to the United States has been arbitrarily delayed or blocked.
Micaela Schuneman, director of refugee services with the International Institute of Minnesota, said that families are increasingly frustrated with the State Department’s opaque bureaucracy: “We’re the ones having to explain that to family members who are very worried, and sometimes distraught, that their relatives are not coming,” she said. “Every [refugee] that doesn’t come here has someone here that’s waiting for them.”
To Omar Mohamed, a case manager with Church World Service (CWS) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the pain is felt on both sides of the refugee bureaucracy. On a recent visit to the Dadab refugee camp in Kenya, which holds many Somali refugees and where Mohamed previously lived, he said he observed overwhelming despair among refugees who had been waiting years to reunite with family members: “The question they ask me: ‘What have we done to the president…? What did the immigrant people do to this administration?’”
Meanwhile, many resettled refugees in Lancaster face severe anxiety on top of all their other traumas. In one typical case of a mother waiting years for her children to be brought to the United States, Mohamed said, “She would rather be with her children and suffer with them in the refugee camp, than be suffering here by herself.”
Many resettlement organizations, which contract with the State Department for resettlement services like helping people find housing and jobs—are now struggling to stay open or have already closed. According to the Refugee Council USA, 51 programs have permanently closed under Trump. Another 41 offices have temporarily suspended their programs, scaling back basic services for refugees in 23 states. The Trump administration accelerated the closure of programs with dwindling enrollment with a rule that organizations receiving fewer than 100 refugees in a year lose their federal funding.
Avi Rose, executive director of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, said that under the administration’s “concerted attempt to decimate the US refugee program,” the group’s staff has shrunk: “We don’t know whether there’s going to be resettlement in two weeks, so obviously we can’t hire anybody.”
Even organizations that have stayed afloat under Trump have been affected by the evisceration of the refugee program.
Under Trump, CWS’s resettlement cases in Lancaster have dropped from a peak of about 400 toward the end of the Obama administration to about 200 today—and the demographics of their clientele has shifted. Syrians and Somalis previously made up a large portion of their resettlement cases, but after Trump’s Muslim and refugee bans—mirroring nationwide trends—the group resettled no Syrian or Somali refugees in fiscal year 2018. Now refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo make up the largest share of recent resettlement cases in Lancaster, while Muslim and Middle Eastern cases have dwindled.
CWS has managed to stabilize its finances by boosting private donations. But Stephanie Gromek, the development and communications coordinator with CWS in Lancaster, said she is more concerned about the cultural gap left by the would-be resettlements that will not occur. Though only about 5 percent of the county’s population is foreign-born, Lancaster has flourished in recent years in part because the refugee and immigrant communities have brought cultural vibrancy to the small city, particularly in fostering a thriving restaurant scene featuring cuisine from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
“Lancaster in the past 10, 12 years or so has really, really grown through its cultural diversity.… I would hope that it would not be on the decline, and that we just continue to empower our local refugee and immigrant community to feel that they can start these new businesses,” Gromek said.
Bhim Thapaliya, a Nepali refugee who now runs education and mentorship programs for other refugee youth in Lancaster and sells Nepalese spices on the side, said the rise in attacks on Muslims, Jews, and other ethnic groups under Trump has changed his outlook.
“You can see where the administration is going,” he said. “They’re not just targeting one group of people…. There is no way that you cannot think of what’s going to happen to you next.” Remembering his family’s escape from ethnic cleansing in Bhutan, he reflected, “That really terrifies me. Seeing [this in] the country of law and order and opportunities and everything is sad.”
In addition to the trauma suffered by divided families, there is also a social and economic opportunity cost when refugee admissions decline. A 2017 federal government study found that refugees had, over the past decade, contributed $63 billion in excess of the cost of resettlement services. And they have often shaped the political dynamics of their communities, as with the Somali American refugees who recently launched a workplace justice campaign for Amazon warehouse employees.
As the White House continues to ratchet down the refugee ceiling, advocates say further slashing the program could erode the geopolitical role of the United States. The refugee program has historically been used for diplomatic leverage, particularly in countries devastated by US military interventions. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the United States resettled hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees and their families. More recently, the US military has run a special program to resettle Iraqis who had assisted US forces as translators.
Under Trump’s current cap, the administration says 4,000 slots will be reserved for Iraqi refugees who aided, or are otherwise connected to, US personnel. Still, many fear Washington’s moral position on refugees has suffered irrevocable damage under Trump.
“It’s a very different world,” Nezer said, “if the US doesn’t demonstrate any responsibility, or any interest in people who are persecuted…. To think that there’s no voice in the world, with the potential to influence [others] like ours, taking that role, is actually kind of scary.” She noted that the modern refugee regime was founded in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, when the governments of war-ravaged nations created an international legal framework for humanitarian protection. To dismantle a decades-old system for safeguarding the most vulnerable communities, Nezer said, “basically tells the world we’re repudiating that history. And that could be very dangerous for many people around the world.”