Blog post written by Elizabeth S. Coyle, the Director of Client Services for JacksonWhite Attorneys at Law (Arizona, U.S.). Elizabeth also serves as a paralegal for the Family Law Department and is responsible for internal and external communications for the firm.
Current times are uncertain for those seeking protection in the U.S. Recently, a migrant caravan of thousands moving towards the U.S. (many of whom plan to seek asylum) has made international headlines, both for the migrants’ courage and Trump’s verbal refusal. The coverage highlighted the political tensions that often conflate with bureaucratic matters, making U.S. admittance an extremely complicated process. Meanwhile, refugee resettlement has faced reduced refugee quotas and increased vetting procedures which bar entrance to many in desperate need. For refugees and asylum-seekers alike, the process of gaining protection within the U.S. has become exceedingly difficult and oftentimes impossible as of late. Yet, hope is to be found from taking lessons from the past to improve current systems, which may indeed lead to a better future for all seeking U.S. protection in the future.
PART I: Refugee Resettlement and Vetting Procedures
Refugee Resettlement Quotas
Since the Trump administration took the helm at the White House, there have been massive cuts to the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S. through the resettlement scheme. The resettlement scheme involves selection, security approval, placement by one of nine government agencies, and a transition period into the programs established by the U.S. for refugees.
With Trump carrying the power to set the allotted totals, refugee counts have dropped as much as 60 percent from the Obama administration’s all-time high of 110,000 refugees in a single year, according to the Washington Examiner. Current numbers are anticipated to be further cut by over 77 percent in the coming years. Obama traditionally stood at an average of 75,000 refugees a year, a number that Trump is slashing with fervor.
While a count of 45,000 refugees has been proposed for 2018, many think the allowable number of refugees by the Trump administration will come in far less (potentially at only 25,000). Others fear that Trump will eliminate the refugee policy altogether as he sets levels based on his own precedent.
Stronger Vetting Procedures
These reduced quotas are enabled through the introduction of stronger vetting procedures for refugees applying for resettlement. Under the new vetting process, additional medical checks and security regulations are required, meaning in practice that some refugees are required to resubmit applications that are expiring before they receive the clearance for entry. This vetting process has greatly increased the time taken for refugees to receive approval to enter the country. As such, this low approval rate further contributes to the cuts noted above.
Prior to Trump’s focus on refugee policy, foreign nationals looking to enter the country required extensive security checks with higher levels of clearance for certain countries and an interview process with the United Nations as well as State Department officials. With Trump’s order, even stronger vetting was required including 10 years of biographical information as well as social media checks. This was a step deeper than the five-year collection of background information previously required.
These new security procedures accounted for a reduced refugee count from October to December 2017. During this timeframe only approximately 5000 refugees were allowed into the U.S., down from the 25,000 during the same time a year earlier, according to PBS. They also disproportionately affect certain groups, as from October to December 2017 only 14 percent of refugees came from Muslim descent, according to the Wall Street Journal. At the same time, Christian refugee entry increased.
Refugee resettlement agencies have questioned the vetting maneuvers of President Trump as they consider the previous process stringent enough and maintain that many refugees are unable to provide the documentation to meet the new vetting requirements. In addition, a number of refugee resettlement agencies have had to close as a result of the lower refugee count because the new policy has made it more difficult to maintain current staff levels as well as facilities for resettlement.
PART II: Asylum Seekers and the Migrant Caravan
Other than refugee resettlement, another method to gain protection in the U.S. is by applying for asylum either at the border or from within U.S. territory. Trump has openly criticized the process of asylum, claiming that it improperly permits immigrants into the country who should not be allowed in. Recently, there has been a lot of coverage of a migrant caravan working its way through South America to the U.S.’ southern borders, largely made up of people from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Simply put, many caravan members are seeking asylum from extremely dangerous situations in their home countries. As journalists have traveled with the caravan over the weeks and miles, caravan members have shared their stories of violence, oppression and danger. Violence, intimidation and payment demands from gangs are just a few of the reasons why caravan members are seeking asylum, as told to journalists and reported in a USA Today report. Clearly, members of the asylum caravan are fleeing from highly dangerous situations in their home countries, which explains why many in the caravan are not willing to lodge their applications for asylum in Mexico, a context in which many of the same issues are present.
Trump commented that the migrant caravan was “openly defying [the U.S.’] border.” However, asylum is the legal process of applying for sanctuary once at a U.S. border. If the applicant was applying from far away, they would be applying for refugee resettlement. So, the migrants in the caravan are less defying U.S. borders and more following U.S. law as it is written.
Trump has further spread misinformation about the caravan stating that the caravan has gang members and ‘bad people’ mixed in, including “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” (a point disputed in a USA Today report). However, a notion said by Trump can be carried far, whether grounded in fact or not — ultimately making the asylum-seeking process harder for those seeking protection in the U.S.
PART III: Counterbalance to Trump – Courts and Law
Many are concerned that the reduced protection through resettlement programs and the increased difficulty of seeking asylum in the U.S have effectively reduced the possibility of the U.S. providing a safe haven for refugees as it historically has done. However the courts within the U.S. have continued to push back against these changes, with some success.
Trump’s Executive Order of 27 January 2017 (dubbed the ‘Muslim ban’) immediately suspended all entry into the U.S for a period of four months from a specified list of Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s rationale behind the ban was to prevent terrorism and allow time to put the new vetting process in place. The courts were active in combating the ban, securing a partial lift of the ban (until October 2017) and allowing (through a Supreme Court ruling) the ban to be modified to a level that allowed refugees with a relationship to a person or entity in the U.S. entry.
Despite this, a new order (which required persons from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen to face a 90 day screening process) was implemented in late 2017 which effectively stopped the entry of refugees from these countries, which previously made up as much as 40 percent of the U.S. refugee count, according to Reuters. This order was challenged with an injunction that lifted the policy in December, which the government is appealing to date.
In terms of the migrant caravan, Trump had in November 2018 issued an order (which would last for 90 days) denying asylum to anyone who entered the U.S. without the correct documentation (overtly targeting those traveling in the caravan). However, this order was immediately challenged in courts, and banned by a federal judge in late November.
South Vietnamese refugees arrive on a U.S. Navy vessel during Operation Frequent Wind (1975)
PART IV: Past, Present and Future of U.S. Protection
International and federal law recognizes the right of protection for individuals in desperate need of help from countries around the world. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Refugee Act of 1980 was created and signed into law by President Carter, allowing 300,000 people to come into the U.S. between 1975 and 1979. The main goal of the Act was to aid those around the world who were experiencing atrocities and could no longer endue in their native country. According to a Pew Research Center report, roughly three million people have been re-homed in the U.S. since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980.
While entry into the U.S. is currently framed predominantly as a security issue, many of the security concerns cited may be able to be managed through better planning and implementation by the State Department. Funds need to remain more flexible to address the varying number of refugees and asylum-seekers looking for protection in the U.S. As the needs of these groups changes, the U.S. may need to rethink its adaptation involving more agencies and officials to not only protect borders but provide help to those who need it.
Whether extended protection is possible in the U.S. remains to be seen under the Trump administration. The current state of the protection issue is evolving daily, leaving many refugees and asylum seekers confused and frustrated with the process and laws which regulate entry into the U.S. Hopefully, as time goes on and more people become aware of the dangers facing others around the world, new measures will be brought into effect for the betterment of the lives of those in need, and to restore the U.S. as a place of sanctuary.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.