The U.S. has suspended refugee resettlement interviews in anticipation of an executive order temporarily halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries plagued by strife, Reuters reported Thursday.
The Department of Homeland Security has directed personnel to stop making trips abroad to interview refugees, a crucial step in the yearslong process of gaining entry into the United States, sources told Reuters.
President Trump is expected to sign an executive order as early as Friday barring immigration from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen pending development of a more stringent vetting procedure to keep terrorists from gaining entry to the United States. The order also affects people already holding visas and would cut the number of refugee admissions from 100,000 to 50,000.
Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York, said a halt to interviews would delay refugee processing even if no changes are made.
"In the past, when we've frozen the refugee program to re-examine security issues, it's been really important to continue processing even if you can't admit people, because processing times in this program can be two to three years," Heller said.
During the election campaign, Trump decried the immigration process as inadequate despite extensive screening by several U.S. agencies and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The move comes as the United Nations called for more assistance to aid Syrian refugees trying to escape six years of civil war.
Chris George, director of the Integrated Refugee Resettlement Program in New Haven, Connecticut, told Vice News the decision will mean refugees will take more desperate action like “placing their children in so-called boats that will sink in the Mediterranean [and] more refugees languishing and sweating it out in refugee camps.”
Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia account for 54 percent of 21 million refugees worldwide, the UNHCR has said. Of the 85,000 refugees resettled in the United States last year, just 12,000 came from Syria. By comparison, Germany took in more than 1 million.
The U.S. has long been an example to the world in the treatment of refugees. The change in policy “has implications not only four our own country but for the global response to refugees,” outgoing refugee resettlement director Robert Carey told a December roundtable on refugee response.
Trump has said refugees should be resettled closer to home.