National News

Apartments Are Stocked, Toys Donated. Only the Refugees Are Missing.

Posted May 16, 2018 3:51 p.m. EDT

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, this March, volunteers were on their way to set up an apartment, cars loaded with linens, lamps, crockery and canned food, when they were abruptly told to turn around. The refugee family from the Democratic Republic of Congo would not be coming.

In Columbus, Ohio, a 14-passenger white van that would take refugees to medical appointments sits unused. In the rare instance a newcomer or two needs transport, they travel in a fuel-efficient economy car.

And in southwest Houston, a 1,500-square-foot storage room is loaded to the ceiling with furniture, toys, bedding and other items donated for refugee families, all collecting dust.

The flow of refugees to the United States has slowed nearly to a halt, demonstrating that what President Donald Trump’s administration could not achieve by executive order it is accomplishing by bureaucracy.

The administration has cut the staff that conducts clearance interviews overseas, intensified the screening process for refugees, and for those people it characterizes as high-risk, doubled the number who need to be screened. As a result, if the trickle of refugees admitted continues at its current pace, just 20,000 are projected to enter the United States by the end of this year, the lowest figure since the resettlement program was created with passage of the Refugee Act in 1980.

The machinery of refugee resettlement has ground down accordingly.

“Every stage in the process works like the assembly line in a factory — each station knows exactly what to do and how to do the handoff to the next step,” said Barbara Strack, who retired in January as the chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “This fiscal year,” she added, “the administration essentially ‘broke’ the assembly line in multiple places at the same time.”

The steepest decline has been in the number of Muslims who have been resettled. In fiscal 2016, 38,900 Muslim refugees came to the United States, according to statistics from the State Department. The following year, that number fell to 22,861. This fiscal year, just 2,107 have arrived.

A total of 13,051 refugees of all backgrounds have been admitted, making it unlikely that the administration’s originally planned cap of 45,000 — about half the number that came during the last year of the Obama administration — will be met.

“It’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” said Jennifer Sime, senior vice president at the International Rescue Committee, one of the nine national resettlement agencies contracted by the State Department. “Little by little — until you get to the point where nobody is coming.”

A State Department spokesperson did not dispute there was a slowdown and said processing times may be slower as the government implements new screening procedures. And refugee resettlement, the department insisted, was not the only way to help displaced people.

“The United States will also continue to lead the world in humanitarian assistance and support displaced people close to their homes in order to help meet their needs until they can safely and voluntarily return home,” Carol T. O’Connell, principal deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, said in a statement. Even before Trump took office, resettlement of refugees was a protracted, interagency process, with vetting often taking two years.

Soon after Trump became president, he moved to shut down the flow of refugees to the United States through a series of executive orders, an effort that was initially stymied by the federal courts. Still, in June 2017, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to pause admissions for 120 days. In October, the administration then put into place another 90-day pause for refugees from countries the administration identified as “high-risk” of terrorism, including the mainly Muslim nations of Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Sudan. That hold ended in January, at least on paper.

Refugees from all nations who had already been through initial screenings waited to be interviewed by officers of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at camps and cities around the world. But the frequency of those interviews slowed considerably.

One of the reasons was a large backlog in applications from immigrants seeking refuge in the United States under a different process — filing applications for asylum from persecution in their homelands, mainly Central America. Under international law, the United States cannot turn away or place caps on applicants who, unlike those applying for refugee status from the other side of the world, actually show up at the border.

In recent months, the immigration agency diverted 100 of its 215 refugee officers to conduct asylum interviews. That, said Jennifer Higgins, associate director of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is part of “an effort to address the massive asylum workload.”

Refugees interviewed overseas undergo extensive background checks by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The administration has now required refugees to list phone numbers and addresses going back 10 years, instead of five, as well as social media and email accounts, adding to the paperwork. And it has ordered an additional layer of vetting for refugees from 11 high-risk countries, meaning that many in the pipeline already approved had to be rescreened, leading to further delays.

Previously only male refugees were subject to such vetting, but now it includes females ages 14 to 50, which has exacerbated the backlog.

During the Obama administration, said Strack, the former head of the Refugee Affairs Division, there was pressure to reach the 85,000-person cap, but under Trump, there is no commitment to attain the allowed number. “What is strikingly different this year is that there is no apparent urgency to address the dramatic backlog in completing security checks,” she said.

The backlog has left refugees in limbo abroad.

Few refugees from the designated high-risk countries have arrived in the United States since January: 11 from Syria, 36 from Iraq, and 22 from Sudan.

The refugee program slowed before — after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the government began implementing tougher security checks. Before this year, the fewest refugees arrived when President George W. Bush was president in 2002: 27,131. But by 2016 under President Barack Obama, the number had climbed to 84,994, which included 12,587 Syrians fleeing a bloody civil war.

Scaling down of the program comes at a time when there are approximately 22.5 million refugees in the world, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which designates people for refugee resettlement.

The slowdown has thrown the partnership between the government and refugee resettlement agencies into disarray. The State Department contracts with nine nonprofits whose affiliates receive refugees in cities across the country.

In Texas, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston is funded to resettle about 600 refugees per year. The $2,125 it receives per refugee covers initial expenses for the arrivals, such as rent, food and referrals to health and job services. This year, said Ali Al Sudani, the director of refugee programs at the organization, just 110 have arrived.

“If I don’t get the refugees, eventually I won’t be able to sustain the staffing capacity and the operations,” Sudani said. For the moment, he is deploying staff to run other programs.

The State Department, which oversees the agencies, announced in December that affiliates might be eliminated if they resettled fewer than 100 refugees annually. Already, from Miami to Garden City, Kansas, to Minneapolis and St. Paul, nearly 50 of the 350 affiliates nationwide have closed, according to the State Department.

Canopy Northwest Arkansas opened in Fayetteville at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016 with great enthusiasm from volunteers from churches, schools and the Rotary Club. It is the only refugee resettlement organization in Arkansas.

Canopy works with the nearby Bentonville Church of the Nazarene, which was assigned a family in late 2016 that was expected to arrive in early 2017. The wave of travel bans delayed the refugees’ departure and then their medical exams expired; then their security checks had to be repeated, according to Canopy, whose volunteers are still hoping they will come in the next few months.

The church’s basement is stuffed with donations for the family, and the pastor is considering holding a tag sale if they do not arrive soon.

Canopy received 55 refugees in 2017, and was told to prepare for 75 this year. But between July 30 and March 20, the group did not receive a single refugee. Volunteers were upset. “People direct that frustration at us,” said Canopy’s executive director, Emily Linn Crane.

Before Easter, about 20 church members, students and teachers channeled their frustration by marching into lawmakers’ offices in Washington, demanding action. In the ensuing weeks, the community received two refugee families. The fallout of the slowdown extends beyond volunteers, refugee agencies say: In Idaho, employers who rely on a steady stream of newcomers from Congo, Myanmar and Iraq, among other countries, are having trouble filling jobs they normally tap refugees to do in the lodging, retail and dairy industries.

Across the country, resettled refugees who fled war zones are so anxious about their loved ones still stranded overseas that they cannot acclimate to their new lives.

“It has re-traumatized a lot of people,” said Rama Deen, executive director of Tidwell Social Services in Boise, Idaho, which provides mental health counseling. “Your children you have been working so hard to bring here are stuck.”

The State Department said it expects to fund a smaller number of agencies next year, corresponding to the fewer refugees to be resettled, and the survival of even some of the most-established organizations, like the global Jewish nonprofit resettlement group, HIAS, which was founded in New York in 1881, is in doubt.

“The refugee program reflects the priorities of every administration,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president at HIAS. But what’s happening is unlike anything she has seen before, she said. “We’ve had extreme vetting for years, but refugees have cleared the process. Now they don’t. It’s not extreme vetting any more, it’s a closed door.”