Nearly 300 refugees who had been approved and booked to arrive in the United States last week to begin a new chapter in their lives had their flights canceled at the last minute, according to several resettlement agencies.
With the help of the State Department, resettlement agencies across the country had begun to process and book hundreds of refugees to enter the U.S. in March after the Biden administration announced it would be raising the refugee cap.
The decision was applauded as a crucial first step in rebuilding the refugee system after it was dealt a series of blows by then-President Donald Trump, who spent years demonizing refugees and decimating the resettlement programs.
But nearly a month after announcing the refugee increases and notifying Congress, President Joe Biden has yet to formally sign off on the higher cap.
Without Biden’s signature, refugee admissions are still restricted by Trump’s record-low 15,000 cap for fiscal year 2021 and his decision to exclude refugees from Muslim-majority countries like Syria and Somalia. The delay has forced a slew of canceled tickets and left hundreds of refugees in limbo and resettlement agencies scrambling.
The State Department has canceled flights for at least 264 refugees this month and more cancellations are expected, according to resettlement agencies.
“The President is committed to strengthening the operations of the United States Refugee Admissions Program. While no firm numbers have been finalized, the President’s view is clear: This program will reflect the generosity and core values of the United States while benefiting from the many contributions that refugees make to our country,” said a White House spokesperson via email last week.
Families Torn Apart
Poneo Wilondja’s family was among those who had their flights canceled. A former refugee himself, Wilondja had resettled alone in Salt Lake City in June 2019. Distraught about being separated from his family, the 25-year-old was told they could soon follow.
But that never happened. His family was due to arrive last August but was prevented from doing so by Trump’s refugee cap as well as travel restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After Biden was elected president, Wilondja began to feel hopeful again. The new administration launched an effort to overhaul the immigration system, including raising the refugee cap to 125,000 for the next fiscal year (which starts Oct. 1, 2021) and allowing an additional 62,500 refugees to be admitted this fiscal year.
Wilondja’s family, who are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and now reside in Tanzania as refugees, were among those cleared to travel to the U.S. in March. He purchased furniture and clothing for his parents and siblings in anticipation of their arrival. Then last Wednesday, Wilondja received a heartbreaking phone call from the local resettlement agency to let him know that his family’s trip had been delayed once again ― this time because the new president had not yet officially raised the refugee cap.
“Without my family here, I have a lot of stress,” said Wilondja. “I feel lonely all the time.”
Renewed Anxiety For Refugees
For some refugees, being removed from flights was reminiscent of Trump’s initial 2017 travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, when refugees and other barred individuals already in the air didn’t know if they would be allowed to stay in the country once they landed. Thousands of lawyers, advocates and protesters went to major airports to demand that those travelers be let in. Refugees and other passengers were left in limbo.
Although that travel ban has since been lifted by the new administration, thousands of cases remain backlogged. Travel restrictions and court closures caused by the pandemic have added to the challenges facing the Biden administration, which has vowed to create a strategic plan to address the accumulation of cases and overhaul the immigration system.
The International Rescue Committee said that at least 168 of its clients ― including Wilondja’s family ― were impacted by the cancellations.
The cancellations have induced mental anguish among refugees, many of whom donated or sold all of their belongings and transitioned out of their previous homes, said Natalie El-Deiry, the executive director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City and Missoula, Montana.
Before refugees can board a flight for the U.S., they undergo intense background checks and health screenings, all of which will have to be done again if they don’t board on time.
In addition to booking their travel, the resettlement agencies have secured housing, enrolled children in school, conducted intake and medical appointments, and assisted with supplies and food, all of which is also upended when refugees don’t arrive as scheduled.
“It causes a great deal of stress and can be somewhat demoralizing to our families like, ‘What’s going on?’ We thought this was going to be a new time for a new era for resettlement. Why are these cases getting canceled?” said El-Deiry.
“We’re hopeful,” she added, that Biden will actually raise the cap, the administration will work through repairing the resettlement system, and “we won’t see these cancellations” anymore.
Escaping Perilous Refugee Camps
In South Carolina, 45-year-old Felix Ndayisenga hasn’t seen his nephew for over 20 years since he fled the DRC amid war. His last memory was of a baby boy. Now his nephew is a married man with two children of his own residing in a refugee camp in Burundi, where basic necessities like water, medicine and electricity run scarce. Ndayisenga said he was counting down the days until his nephew could join him in Greensboro.
Instead, his nephew called him in tears last week. After donating all of their belongings and traveling to a city closer to the airport, his nephew’s family found that their flight to America was canceled and they were ordered to go back to the refugee camp.
Ndayisenga was told his family could not board the plane without Biden’s first signing a document back in Washington.
“We have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Ndayisenga. “These people need to get to a safe place. They are in a prison there.”
Ndayisenga’s nephew keeps calling him for updates, but he feels helpless and doesn’t know how to respond. He can’t sleep or eat knowing his nephew’s family has been sent back to a refugee camp. He is particularly worried about their medical screening, which is due to expire this month.
“We are happy to hear that this new government was approving refugees to come,” said Ndayisenga. “Whoever is in that power to sign to allow for them come, please do it.”