In the bleak camps that are home to millions displaced by war and persecution around the globe, there are families that have been waiting years for a chance to rebuild shattered lives in the United States.
Some already had travel dates and had started selling off cooking pots and mattresses when President Trump ordered in January that the U.S. refugee resettlement program be put on hold for 120 days, while the government reviewed its vetting procedures for travelers from countries with ties to terrorism.
After a series of court battles, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed part of a revised order, a 90-day ban on travel from six Muslim-majority countries, to take effect last month. Exceptions were made for people with a “bona fide relationship” to schools, employers, close family and other entities in the U.S.
Refugee admissions came to a halt Wednesday after a 50,000-person cap for the fiscal year was reached. We spoke to David Murphy, who heads the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee, to find out what this will mean for the refugee families that his nonprofit helps settle here. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Which refugees get to come to the U.S.?
There are a couple of misperceptions about the refugee resettlement program, and one is that refugees can pick that they will come to the United States, when in fact it is the U.S. government that will go out and pick refugees that could be eligible for resettlement.
The process begins every year with a determination that is made by the sitting president [about the number who will be admitted]. For the last number of years, it was 70,000. Last year, in 2016, it was raised to 85,000, and then before President Obama left office, it was raised to 110,000 for this year.
There are more than 65 million people displaced in the world today, and even if the U.S. were going to bring in 110,000, which they’re not, it’s less than a drop in the bucket. And so the U.S. prioritizes who it will bring in. We prioritize members of opposition groups, journalists, members of religious minorities, LGBT community members, survivors of gender-based violence — those most in need of protection.
The U.S. State Department has regional refugee coordinators based in embassies around the world that will physically go to refugee camps to identify potential refugees for resettlement to the U.S.
Once the U.S. government has decided on these most vulnerable people, there then begins a process of in-person interviews, conducted by Department of Homeland Security staff, to build up the case file on these individuals. They will conduct an interview. They go away. They come back. They re-interview you. Does your story stay the same? This can happen six, eight times over the course of a year or two.
Once Department of Homeland Security is satisfied that they have an accurate case file on you, your file is then turned over to the security vetting machine. This is where your biometric data is run through up to 14 different databases — FBI, CIA, etc. — which takes another year. Then you are finally cleared to come to the United States.
The process takes two years on average, but for some countries it can take five or six or even eight years.
We don’t want terrorists here anymore than anyone else does. But we also are confident in the current vetting process.
— David Murphy, International Rescue Committee
Trump wants “extreme vetting” of refugees. Is there more vetting that can be done?
That’s a good question. They’re already pretty extremely vetted.
As resettlement agencies, we are open to taking a look at the existing vetting process, and if there is a way to improve it, of course improve it. We don’t want terrorists here any more than anyone else does. But we also are confident in the current vetting process that the U.S. government has in place.
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What effect is Trump’s travel ban having on the refugees you work with?
There is a huge amount of uncertainty oversees in the refugee camps. The U.S. was initially planning on bringing in 110,000 refugees. Now we’re going to bring in about 50,000.
So that means there are about 60,000 refugees that are in the final stages of being vetted that were supposed to come to the United States this year, and now they are left in limbo — literally. They have no idea if they ever will travel to the United States, or if it will be delayed by months or years.
It’s really unfortunate, because when a refugee is in the final stages of the process and getting ready to leave, they will sell all their household materials, because you only bring a suitcase with your clothes with you. And so now we have refugees in camps that are getting rid of everything, yet at the last minute we’re saying, “No, wait a minute. Just sit tight.”
We’re also splitting families. We had a Somali family arrive last week, quite literally that’s what they told us: They have some family back in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, and now they have no idea if they will ever be able to travel.
It’s really sending a negative message to the world, saying that the U.S. is no longer going to provide safe harbor for refugees.
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So what happens now?
The Supreme Court said that if you’ve gone through all of these vetting processes, and if you can prove you have a bona fide relationship with an immediate family member living in the U.S., then you can come.
But there is a disconnect there between what the policy is and how it is going to be implemented. The U.S. government picks individual refugees to come to the United States based upon need for protection, not based upon if they have an existing family member living in the U.S.
The Supreme Court also said if you have a connection with an institution or organization, then that will count. So the resettlement agencies are arguing that refugees have a relationship with a resettlement agency, so that should count the same way that a university would.
Then there is the travel ban for the six predominantly Muslim countries. We don’t know what is going to happen after the 90 days, if this will be extended, or if people from these countries will be allowed to travel again.
Because there would be refugees coming from those countries. Here in Southern California, the No. 1 refugee populations have been Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Somalis, Congolese and Burmese.
If the travel ban remains in place, that means that Syrians and Somalis would no longer be able to come through the refugee program. And yet Syrians, for example, they have seen the horrors of war. They have seen the effects of terrorism. They have seen the effects of Islamic State. And yet the U.S. is turning our back on them.
What does the future look like for refugee resettlement in the U.S.?
We’re in unchartered waters here. The U.S. resettlement program has always enjoyed bipartisan support. These are people that are fleeing war; they are those most in need of protection.
Unfortunately, with the current political climate, refugees, immigrants, illegal immigrants, Muslim terrorists are all packed in one nice sound bite. So we don’t know what the future of the refugee resettlement program is going to look like.
But the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. It is the fabric of our society. It is what strengthens us as a nation. So hopefully calmer heads will prevail in the future.
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12:45 p.m.: This article has been updated with the limit being reached for refugee admissions.
This article was originally posted at 6 a.m.