WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump restarted the U.S. refugee resettlement program on Tuesday after a 120-day suspension but added new vetting requirements and another review period that will make it harder and slower for vulnerable people to come to the United States.
For many refugees, the suspension of refugee resettlement will effectively continue. Trump ordered a 90-day review of procedures and security in 11 countries, which officials declined to name publicly. During that time, refugees will be allowed to resettle only if it’s deemed to be in the national interest of the U.S.
Trump also halted the program that allows family members to reunite with refugees already resettled in the U.S. The delay is until unnamed security measures have been implemented, which will affect individuals of all nationalities. And all refugees will be subject to the additional screening, including requirements that they provide information about their location for the past decade, Reuters reported.
The increased vetting measures were deemed “adequate to generally, broadly resume refugee admissions” by officials at the departments of State and Homeland Security, along with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, DHS spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Tuesday.
He said government officials determined that 11 countries needed additional consideration. He and other officials noted to reporters that the 11 countries were designated areas of concern that would require stricter vetting in 2015 ― likely a defense against arguments that Trump’s latest refugee order is a veiled effort to keep Muslims out of the country, as he vowed to do on the campaign trail.
Although the government did not identify the countries, as of the end of 2016 there were higher security vetting requirements for adult males from 11 nations, according to Reuters: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, along with some Palestinians.
The government anticipates the requirements will make it slower for refugees of all nationalities to go through the screening process, although a senior administration official said they did not have estimates because the time periods vary. The security and background check that refugees in the resettlement pipeline undergo already involves a wide variety of federal agencies and takes at least 18 months.
“Today’s announcement makes the pattern undeniable. The Trump administration is seeking to dismantle the refugee resettlement program brick by brick, through any means necessary,” Rev. John McCullough, the president of refugee resettlement organization Church World Service, said in a statement.
Officials declined to go into detail about the new screening measures, citing security and law enforcement concerns. They will require applicants to provide additional information and give those conducting screening more training and flexibility to detect fraud and determine if people are inadmissible, Jennifer Higgins, associate director of the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told reporters. She said they will also expand the review process for some applicants, including social media checks.
“The security of the American people, of course, is our highest priority,” Higgins said on the administration’s call with reporters. “The vetting and screening enhancements that the U.S. refugee admissions program is implementing ensures that the United States can continue to admit eligible refugees while also protecting the national security and welfare of the United States.”
A State Department memo obtained by Reuters said that all refugees would be required to provide “phone, email and address information going back ten years instead of five” for anywhere they lived for more than 30 days. Refugees will also be required to give current phone and email addresses for all family members, rather than just those with connections to the U.S., Reuters reported.
A government official told reporters that the process will still focus on vulnerability versus other factors for determining whom to admit, and remains “committed to nondiscrimination.”
Refugees who already made it to the U.S. have struggled with the previous system, which already made it difficult for them to reunite with their families.
The U.S. family reunification program faced complaints over its narrow definition of who constituted family. It applies only to children, spouses or parents of the person making the request. And those children must be under the age of 21. This means that a refugee in the U.S. has no legal pathway to reunite with a sibling.
Sana Mustafa, a Syrian who claimed asylum in the U.S. in 2014, petitioned to reunite with her mother and sisters, who fled to Turkey. Since none of them could qualify under the reunification requirements, they decided to attempt going through the resettlement pipeline. They were denied earlier this year. Now, she said, they remain in Turkey, where refugees cannot legally work or attend school.
Rahim Hamid, 31, an Iranian refugee who was resettled in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2015, is also at a loss over what to do about his sister-in-law, he told HuffPost. She and her husband, Iranian refugees living in Turkey, applied to reunite with Hamid and his wife but were rejected after Trump entered office. They appealed earlier this year and were rejected again.
“They even didn’t give any clear justification or explanation why they have been denied,” Hamid said. “There is no solution. They are stranded in Turkey.”
A limited version of Trump’s ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries went into effect following a Supreme Court decision in June. This allowed a 120-day suspension of the refugee program to be enacted, along with a 90-day ban on travel from all non-visa holders from those countries. Trump attempted to impose yet another travel ban in September that wouldn’t have affected the refugee program, but it was struck down in federal court last week.
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