October was the first full month in at least 18 years in which the United States did not admit any refugees.
On Tuesday, the State Department notified refugee resettlement agencies for the third time last month that all flights for refugees who have been approved to travel to the U.S. would be postponed. The delays have ground the resettlement program to a halt, leaving hundreds of refugees, including unaccompanied children who already completed a lengthy vetting process, in limbo in some of the world’s most dangerous locations.
Refugee arrivals are typically put on hold during the first week of October while the various federal, international and nongovernmental components of the refugee system adjust to implementing a new plan for U.S. admissions, which is set by the president each fiscal year through an official determination, which is usually signed sometime before the end of September.
“We’ve never seen a moratorium last this long,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigrant Refugee Services, one of the country’s largest refugee resettlement agencies.
“By law, no refugees may be admitted in any given fiscal year until the President signs and issues the Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement to Yahoo News earlier this week, confirming the latest extension of the ongoing moratorium on refugee arrivals. “We have now extended it through November 5.”
As of Nov. 1, President Trump has yet to sign the Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2020.
According to State Department data on monthly refugee arrivals, which is not available before fiscal year 2001, October 2019 is the first month in which zero refugees were admitted to the United States. Previously, the lowest months for arrivals had been October and November of 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, during which the U.S. received just four refugees each. Even then, the U.S. continued to receive at least a few refugees each month.
The State Department said it will work with agencies like LIRS “to plan for a resumption of refugee arrivals, including rescheduling travel for those affected by the extension.” However, Vignarajah emphasized that rescheduling travel for refugees is not as simple as booking a new flight.
“It’s a very intricate system of dealing with international protections, domestic law, international travel, families and communities that are all working on a timeline,” she said. “It’s like a symphony when you synchronize them, but when you continue to throw wrenches into the system, everything comes to a screeching halt. So rather than a symphony, you have kind of a cacophony.”
Vignarajah said, within the LIRS program, there were 107 refugees who were affected by recent flight cancellations who’d been scheduled to fly to the U.S. on Oct. 29, 30 or 31 alone. That does not include those whose flights were cancelled in previous weeks, nor those expected in the week ahead.
One of the 107 is a refugee from Ethiopia who’d been granted a Visa 93, also known as a “follow-to-join” visa, which is designed to reunite refugees with family in the U.S. The Ethiopian refugee, whose name has been withheld to protect their identity, was among those rescheduled to fly to the U.S. on Nov. 5. However, because their visa expires on Nov. 2, the ticket has already been cancelled.
Now LIRS is in the process of trying to renew the visa. “We can’t guarantee that it will be granted,” Vignarajah said. “We can’t guarantee that it will happen quickly.”
Vignarajah gave an example of another refugee family who lives were disrupted by this month’s flight delays: a teenage mother from the Democratic Republic of Congo who was kidnapped and raped by Mai Mai rebels at the age of 14, and her young daughter, who suffers from serious medical issues. The girl had been referred for resettlement in the U.S. through the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program, which provides foster care and a full range of other services to eligible children who don’t have a parent or guardian available to care for them. LIRS had secured placement for her and her child with a foster family in Pennsylvania; however, amid multiple flight postponements last month, she turned 18 and aged out of the URM program, making her ineligible for foster care and other services. LIRS caseworkers quickly searched for a new placement in an adult program, and within a couple of weeks managed to secure a spot for her and her daughter with an affiliate organization in Houston that has a special house for single mothers.
“Of course, our goal was to get her out of harm’s way into the U.S. system so that her child could get the medical care that the baby needed,” said Vignarajah. “But sometimes you don’t luck out.”
A similar scenario now faces another girl from the Democratic Republic of Congo who, along with her two younger brothers, ages 11 and 13, were scheduled to arrive at the home of a foster family in Lewisburg, Pa., earlier this week.
The children, whose names have been concealed to protect their identities, fled sectarian violence in the DRC with their parents and a fourth, younger sibling seven years ago. Since then, they’ve been living in a refugee camp in Rwanda where they experienced the deaths of both their father and youngest sibling, and were abandoned by their mother.
In April, Bethany Christian Services, an affiliate of LIRS that provides refugee resettlement services in Michigan and Pennsylvania, began making arrangements to place the children with a woman named Joya, who asked that her last name not be used out of concern for the security of the children. After about a year of filling out paperwork and attending numerous lengthy training sessions in Philadelphia, a three-hour drive from their home, Joya and her husband completed the process to become refugee foster parents at the end of last year.
Upon learning about the three siblings, Joya and her husband quickly began preparing their house for caseworker visits, replacing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, locking away cleaning products and other chemicals, even renovating part of their house to make sure they would have enough bedrooms to accommodate their new arrivals.
Joya said they received an overwhelming amount of support from members of their small, rural community, including people they didn’t previously know. “Our house was full of people for a week straight” working to get the house ready for the children who were previously scheduled to arrive on Tuesday.
The kids’ flight has since been postponed until Nov. 5, but the possibility of further delays presents serious concern for the older sister, who will turn 18 in the next couple of months.
“We are determined to do everything we can to bring her here before then,” said Nate Bult, vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany. “There are few people in more vulnerable situations than a teenage girl alone in a refugee camp.”
Bult said that, since September, four children who’d been accepted for resettlement through Bethany have aged out of the URM program and, as a result, have been removed from Bethany’s resettlement roster.
“The scary part, from our perspective, [is that] we don’t know what happens to them,” Bult said.
Asked how many refugees have had their flights cancelled or postponed in the last month, a State Department spokesperson told Yahoo News that “refugee arrivals do not proceed at a steady rate throughout the year, so there is no way to provide an exact number.”
Jenny Yang, vice president of policy and advocacy at World Relief, a Christian nongovernmental humanitarian organization that also provides refugee resettlement services, said her program has had 126 flights cancelled since the beginning of October.
Resettlement agencies have reported that there are about 8,000 refugees who have already been thoroughly vetted and approved for travel to the U.S., a process that can take years. However, as Yang pointed out, the medical screenings and security checks required for admission to the U.S. are only valid for a certain period of time.
“If you have a flight cancelled and you don’t have a valid medical form or security check, then you have to go through that whole process all over again,” said Yang, adding that this not only further delays refugees’ access to safety, but “is a waste of government resources as well.”
The White House press office did not respond to multiple inquiries from Yahoo News regarding when the president intends to sign the determination or why it has been so delayed.
Yang said concerns about the future for those 8,000 refugees, and tens of thousands of others already in the resettlement pipeline, goes beyond the current moratorium. While resettlement agencies anxiously await Trump’s signing of the Presidential Determination, they also worry about how refugee arrivals will be further disrupted by the historically low admissions ceiling and strict new categories the determination will impose, as well as the looming implementation of an executive order requiring state and local governments to provide affirmative consent in order to resettle refugees in their communities.
On top of all those new barriers, Robert Carey, former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement during the Obama administration, said he sees the delays as evidence that the refugee program “is being managed to fail.”
“I do think that’s cynical,” he said. “It’s not reflective of the tradition of this country [or] the professionalism with which this program has been managed in the past.”
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