SEATTLE -- President Donald Trump's administration has agreed to speed up the cases of some former interpreters for the U.S. military in Iraq and hundreds of other refugees whose efforts to move to the United States have been in limbo since he announced his travel bans three years ago.
The news was contained in a settlement filed in federal court in Seattle on Monday. It concerned more than 300 refugees who were on the verge of being permitted to come to America in 2017 when their applications were halted as part of Trump’s efforts to restrict travel from several mostly Muslim nations.
Some of those affected are close relatives of refugees who are already in the U.S., while others are from 11 countries, including Egypt, Iran and Somalia, that Trump singled out, citing security reasons.
“The government tried to keep refugee families apart under the pretense of national security,” said Lisa Nowlin, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which sued along with several other organizations. “This settlement aims to undo the harmful effects of the illegal and misguided ban on refugees.”
The restrictions on refugees from the 11 countries and on relatives of those already in the U.S. — known as “follow-to-join” refugees — were companion measures to Trump's broader travel bans on those seeking visas to enter the U.S., which the Supreme Court eventually allowed.
U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle — the same judge who blocked Trump's initial, broader travel ban in early 2017 — blocked the companion refugee restrictions late that year in consolidated lawsuits that were brought by the ACLU, Jewish Family Services, International Refugee Assistance Project and other organizations. They alleged that the refugee bans were discriminatory and arbitrary and that they violated due process rights.
By the time Robart agreed to block the bans, hundreds of refugees had their cases upended, leaving them in administrative limbo. For many, background checks, medical clearances or other required documentation had expired by the time the bans were revoked. That meant they had to begin the process over again.
The plaintiffs included former interpreters for the U.S. military in Iraq, who sued under pseudonyms because they could face threats if their identities became public. Others were refugees who had petitioned to have their spouses and children join them in the U.S. from camps in Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere.
One plaintiff, Allen Vaught, a war veteran from Dallas, said the refugee ban “derailed efforts to get my last surviving Iraqi translator, who served bravely alongside U.S. military forces for many years, to the United States.”
Under the settlement, the refugees won't automatically be admitted to the U.S., but the government agreed to move their cases to the front of the line for processing.
“What the administration did really messed up their cases," said Mariko Hirose, litigation director of the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project. "This settlement is aimed at making sure that people who were affected by the ban are able to get their cases adjudicated and hopefully come to the U.S. very quickly.”
The 11 countries were Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, the Republic of South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.