Trump 'decimated' refugee program hampering Biden's historic goal: Advocates
Still, refugees seeking to reunite their families tell ABC News they have hope.
When President Joe Biden announced two weeks ago that he was dramatically shifting the United States' approach to refugees, it was celebrated in some corners as a swift end to former President Donald Trump's years of rhetorical attacks and antagonistic policies.
"It's very good to know that there are countries like the U.S., there are people like the president willing to welcome more refugees," Amira Kherrallah, a 25-year-old refugee from Central African Republic who lives in Utah, told ABC News.
But while advocates and refugees are hopeful, those fleeing conflict and oppression around the world will not feel the impact right away -- or for months, at the earliest -- after the Trump administration all but dismantled the refugee admissions process, according to resettlement agencies.
"Infrastructure that had been built over four decades was ultimately decimated in four years," Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine national agencies that works with the federal government to resettle refugees, told ABC News.
From stringent -- critics say onerous -- vetting procedures overseas to layoffs and closures among agencies at home, the program doesn't currently have the capacity to admit the number of refugees the Biden White House has aimed for this year, agencies and advocates told ABC News. It will require renewed, long-term investment, they said.
"The Trump administration didn't just try to throw a wrench in the gears," Vignarajah said. "It actually tried to disassemble the entire resettlement infrastructure."
Trump's 'extreme vetting'
Biden announced earlier this month he would raise the number of refugees allowed annually from the 15,000 Trump had set in his final year to 125,000 in Biden's first full fiscal year in office. The U.S. sets refugee ceilings -- the target number of admissions -- over fiscal years, which run from October to September.
For the remainder of this fiscal year, though, Biden hopes to admit 62,500 refugees and his administration has begun the congressional process to raise the number, according to a House of Representatives aide. But given the damage and delays tying up the program now, along with the coronavirus pandemic and some Republican opposition, that may not be possible.
The Trump administration repeatedly set the lowest refugee ceilings in the program's 40-plus year history, with each proposed number lower than the last fiscal year.
In its final year, just over 11,800 refugees were admitted, another historic low -- and even lower than its target of 18,000. Trump's State Department announced in October its final cap of 15,000, although Trump waited four weeks to sign the policy into place, freezing refugee admissions for a month.
The former administration argued that it instead had to focus its resources on the backlog of cases of asylum seekers. Asylum applicants are those who flee violence or oppression and claim legal status -- asylum -- once in a new country, while refugees are those vetted and approved for legal status while still overseas.
But refugee advocates argue that it's a false choice and that Trump did little to deal with either group, while creating greater issues with the refugee resettlement process.
Beyond low caps, Trump's team slowed the process to a near standstill by implementing his "extreme vetting" in several ways.
Refugees have long been the most vetted immigrants to the U.S., according to security experts, including background checks of a refugee's parents, relatives and any points of contact in the U.S. But Trump expanded that to include a labor-intensive manual review of social media accounts and the use of bulk data vetting, which can wrongly flag applicants, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project, a legal aid and advocacy group that sued the Trump administration over these procedures.
Trump banned immigration from several war-torn Muslim-majority countries where most refugees come from, including Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia, while Trump officials cut the number of officers processing refugee cases at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. They also refused to take refugees referred to the U.S. by the United Nations after it had conducted its own vetting.
In October 2019, at the start of Trump's final fiscal year, his administration also created a new policy that required explicit affirmation from states and localities that they would accept refugees, further slowing down the process and complicating the map for resettlement -- an executive order that was, like many of Trump's immigration policies, blocked by a federal court.
"The logic posed by the previous administration had several flaws," Elizabeth Neumann, who served as Trump's assistant secretary of homeland security for threat prevention and security, said last week. "In particular, there was an overstatement of the threat and a misunderstanding of the enhancements to our screening and vetting systems that had been undertaken since 2011."
Nearly one-third of resettlement offices shuttered
For Kherrallah, who has lived in Utah for nearly two years, those Trump policies meant several years of delayed resettlement to the U.S.
The process took about three years longer than she had originally expected as she waited in Chad, she said, before she ultimately received a call in March 2019 that the very next day, she would be moving to Salt Lake City.
"I was like, 'What is Salt Lake City?'" she said.
In Utah, Kherrallah benefited from a history of openness to refugees. The state began accepting them in 1984 and is now home to 65,000, according to Utah's department of workforce services.
But many states and local communities' refugee programs have been shuttered after Trump slowed admissions to a trickle.
At the end of 2016, there were around 325 local offices across the U.S. that resettled refugees in their area. But by the end of 2019, more than 100 had shut down or suspended their services, according to Vignarajah, who said her group alone had to close 17 affiliate programs during the Trump era.
"Our organization has had to reduce staff almost every quarter over a four-year period, and it's always agonizing to figure out who's the next staff member who's going to have to go," said John Moeller, head of Inspiritus, a resettlement agency that works in Georgia and Tennessee.
His organization's capacity has been reduced by 80% in the Atlanta area and, between the two states, has lost 50% of its staff.
"That means that you lose cultural competence, you lose language skills, you lose specialization in this field," he added.
Stalled admissions leave families separated
To keep programs across the country alive, agencies moved staff to other immigration services that were less severely impacted by Trump policies or digging into their own funds as federal resources dried up.
For Zakaria Abdulrazek, 44, that has meant losing co-workers and sweating whether he was next -- even as he struggles to bring his own family to the U.S. from his native Sudan.
Abdulrazek fled Darfur in 2003 amid the genocidal violence, escaping to Libya and then Malta -- and seven long years later, he arrived in the U.S. Now, he works for Inspiritus in Atlanta as a case manager, helping the latest waves of refugees adjust to life in their new home country.
But that journey has been a lonely one. He met his wife a few years ago while visiting Sudan, marrying in 2018 and having a daughter last year. But between the coronavirus pandemic's impact on visa processing and Trump's ban on immigration from Sudan and other Muslim majority countries, his family remains separated.
While he's encouraged by Biden's executive order, he's still waiting to see how it will impact his wife's visa application.
"Still we need actions, so we are waiting, hoping it will be better than before," he said.
In the meantime, he worries for their safety, especially as violence flares up again in the Darfur region and Sudan struggles with fuel and food shortages and an economy on the brink of collapse. He said that a close friend returned last month to visit family in Darfur when militant forces targeted him as a U.S. citizen and killed him.
'Everybody needs a family'
Advocates say the U.S. must do more to meet the historic need. There are more than 80 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, including 26 million refugees.
Josine Izabayo, a 24-year old refugee from Democratic Republic of the Congo, made "the very difficult decision to quit your country" in 2014, fleeing the DRC's relentless conflict that made her an orphan. She spent six years in Uganda stuck "in process," she said, awaiting word on resettlement.
"I came to a new country, new life without knowing anybody," Izabayo told ABC News.
One year ago, she moved to Clarkston, Georgia, outside Atlanta. But her adopted family of nine has not been admitted, their applications left in the balance.
"Everybody needs a family to support and to be with, and so it is very challenging for me," she said. "Hopefully, it will be good... soon."
The Biden administration, however, has said it will take time.
"We are starting from a very slow rolling speed," said State Department spokesperson Ned Price. "But it is the president's commitment that we ensure this program is up and running in a way that provides refuge, provides relief, provides safe haven."
The department has already been engaging in discussions with resettlement agencies, including about offering federal funds in the short term to reinvest and rebuild local programs. That would likely include tens of millions of dollars, according to Vignarajah.
'Fear has been sown in the hearts of the American public'
But even if the administration is able to rebuild the resettlement process from overseas to across the U.S., there is the long-term challenge of making it sustainable -- and able to withstand shifting political winds.
Last week, more than two dozen Republican House members wrote to the secretaries of state and homeland security to condemn Biden's executive order by saying it would "weaken screening and vetting for foreign nationals coming to the United States, including refugee applicants."
The administration "disregards terrorist risk," "promotes marriage fraud, polygamous marriages, and human smuggling," and "seeks to manipulate security vetting standards," they charged.
"Fear has been sown in the hearts of the American public over the last four years about refugees, and we do see increased hostility to people coming into our community," said Moeller, who's also a United Methodist pastor. "It is going to be a challenge in our very community, to be able to wrestle with forces who are not as excited about this work."
The divide, however, isn't inherently partisan, according to Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the Salt Lake City branch of International Rescue Committee, a global aid organization that helps resettle refugees, including Kherrallah.
While Utah voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 and 2020, El-Deiry told ABC News that the state's long support for humanitarianism helped sustain her group's programs through the Trump years, and employers have been asking when more refugees would arrive to fill open jobs. During the last fiscal year of President Barack Obama's time in office, the state accepted 1,245 refugees, while in Trump's final fiscal year only 238 arrived there.
"Utah, being more of a conservative state, certainly has played a role in advocating for the refugee resettlement program and demonstrating what it means to be a welcoming community and that there's benefits for everyone," she said. "The community has continued to be quite supportive of refugee arrivals despite the xenophobic rhetoric that we've seen across the country."
In contrast, Biden's more welcoming rhetoric could also have a more immediate impact on the hopes of refugees waiting abroad.
Kherrallah, whom the International Rescue Committee helped resettle in Salt Lake City, said some of her friends are still waiting in Chad, working their way through the lengthy resettlement process.
"Knowing that people like you are welcome here is a very good thing," she said.
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