National News

Many Muslim Refugees Will Face Additional Scrutiny Under Trump Plan

Posted January 29, 2018 9:41 p.m. EST

The Trump administration said Monday that it is resuming the admission of refugees from 11 countries with additional screening that it said will increase security but which refugee groups say will make it harder for Muslims to find safe haven in the United States.

In late October, after a pause in admissions, the administration began accepting new refugees except for those from the 11 countries, citing the need for a 90-day security review. Officials did not name the countries, but they were widely reported to be Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Those countries have accounted for more than 40 percent of all refugee admissions in recent years.

Refugees from those countries will now be admitted again, but only after additional screening. “These additional security measures will make it harder for bad actors to exploit our refugee program, and they will ensure we take a more risk-based approach to protecting the homeland,” the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, said in a statement.

Officials from refugee resettlement agencies said that while they welcomed the resumption of admissions, the announcement reinforced their view that the administration was determined to quash arrivals from Muslim countries by making it harder for them to qualify for approval.

“This administration disproportionally targets Muslims,” said Hans Van de Weerd, a senior official at the International Rescue Committee. “Today’s announcement does not change this for the better.”

The question of whether the administration’s security measures unfairly single out Muslims is at the heart of the coming Supreme Court arguments over President Donald Trump’s latest travel ban. That ban limits most forms of immigration from some of the same countries, but it does not apply to refugees, who have been dealt with separately.

Trump set a ceiling of 45,000 refugee admissions for the fiscal year, compared with the 85,000 set by President Barack Obama the year before amid an unabated refugee crisis worldwide, including civil war in Syria and conflict in other countries. Last year, hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, where they are parked in camps.

The government is on pace to let in much fewer than 45,000 refugees. About 6,000 have been admitted since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, and only 791 were Muslims, according to the International Rescue Committee. In the previous fiscal year, 14,496 Muslims were admitted.

But Muslims are not the only ones affected by the slowdown. Mark Hetfield, president of the HIAS resettlement agency, said the administration’s approach has also excluded some Christians from the Middle East. And some refugees who were admitted in previous years have been unable to reunite with family members still stuck in refugee camps abroad.

The number of admissions could rise now that the government has reopened the door for people from the 11 countries, although officials noted that 45,000 refugees was a ceiling, not a target, and that there would be a “lag time” as agencies put the new security measures in place.

Officials said the new measures would involve more “in-depth” interviews and “deep-dive” background checks, but they declined to be more specific. “We won’t give our playbook to our enemies,” one administration official said on a conference call with reporters.

With existing security checks, it can take two years for a refugee to be approved for admission to the United States. The vetting includes several interviews of family members, often together and apart; background checks; fingerprinting; and iris scans.

Critics of the administration’s new rules noted that no refugees have carried out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

“By instituting a risk-based analysis to determine refugee admissions, the administration is essentially implementing a Muslim refugee ban without saying it, despite the number of security screenings already in place,” said Kevin Appleby, senior director for international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies.

But Ira Mehlman, the media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that favors restricting immigration, said the administration was right to scrutinize refugees more closely.

“The obligation of the government is to ensure that people let in have been thoroughly vetted,” he said, adding that most people are not endangered by waiting longer for processing.

“Given that these countries have little infrastructure and accurate record-keeping, the vetting process is going to be somewhat more difficult.”