Executive order legal battle not preventing U.S. from resettling fewer refugees

Moslamalama, an 11-year-old Afghan refugee girl who has lived in the Farah City District V Refugee Camp with her family for the past four years, receives donated items, including shoes, winter coats and blankets, that were distributed by theDepartment of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRR) office for Farah Province (ResoluteSupportMedia/flickr)

A legal battle over executive orders limiting the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. is not deterring the Trump administration. The number of refugees arriving in the U.S. has dramatically declined since October, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

It comes days after the White House released its detailed budget request for 2018. Amid cuts to international affairs was a proposed 31 percent reduction in funding for programs designed to help refugees when they arrive in the United States. Humanitarian groups condemned the actions by the administration, arguing that the U.S. is trying to turn its back to a problem that needs more support.

“For people who have already experienced so much suffering, this legal limbo just adds insult to injury,” Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy adviser, told Humanosphere. “Refugees who are fleeing unimaginable violence, persecution, and loss are now watching their hopes for starting new lives in safety in the United States fade away as President Trump’s administration fights to slam the door shut.”

Resettlement rates in 46 states declined since the start of the fiscal year, according to State Department figures. The four states that took in more people, accounted for just 155 refugees over a seven-month period. April saw a slight rebound from the low of 2,070 resettled in March, but the overall trend downward – especially the sharp decline since January – indicates an effort on the part of the Trump administration to limit refugees resettled in the U.S.

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Trump’s controversial executive orders that banned travel from five predominantly Muslim countries and suspended refugee resettlement included the halving of the ceiling on refugee arrivals to 50,000 for the fiscal year, ending in September. While courts hear challenges to the executive order, the administration still has the ability to determine how many people to let in. The ceiling is only the maximum number of people allowed and it is often not reached.

The pace of resettlement could slow further if the administration adheres to its proposed policy. Only 7,586 people can enter the U.S. by the end of September before the 50,000 mark is reached for the fiscal year. It is far fewer than the 60,000 refugees who are already undergoing the one- to two-year vetting process before resettling in the United States. Waiting not only means families must remain in refugee camps, but that their authorization could expire and require a restart of the full approval process.

“As Americans, we must open our hearts and doors to innocent people in search of refuge so that our country can live up to the noble values upon which this country was founded,” Gottschalk said.

The slowdown also affects the groups that help with the resettlement process. U.S.-based organizations are paid $950 for each refugee resettled. The money helps cover administrative costs, such as paying employee salaries. With fewer people allowed in, agencies are trimming staff to compensate for fewer funds. World Relief announced the layoff of 140 staff and the closure of five offices after the first executive order was announced.

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“It is unfortunate that 60,000 people that had hopes and dreams for a peaceful life and having a chance to live in the U.S. are not given that chance anymore,” World Relief Spokeswoman Christina Klinepeter told Humanosphere in February. “There are people who sold all of their belong because they expected to get on a plane the next day who had to try and buy back their stuff.”

The decline does not mean the U.S. is turning away people from the countries listed in the executive orders. The first order temporarily banned travel and refugee resettlement from Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia. Nearly 2,500 refugees from the original six travel restricted countries were resettled in the month after the order was made and put on hold by the courts. The second order placed similar restrictions but did not include Iraq. It, too, was temporarily stopped by federal courts and the cases regarding the orders are ongoing.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.