Massive, makeshift refugee camps are sprawling over farms and open land in southern Bangladesh as more than 430,000 Rohingya Muslims fled terrible violence in their predominantly Buddhist homeland of Myanmar. Time
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration replaced its 120-day suspension of the refugee admissions program this week with a more restrictive, scaled-down version that would have banned half of the refugees admitted to the U.S. last year.
The new program bars refugees coming from 11 countries that made up 44% of the 53,716 refugees admitted to the U.S. in the 2017 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to a USA TODAY analysis of State Department data.
The 11 countries were identified by refugee agencies as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. In all but two of the countries on the list — North Korea and South Sudan — Islam is the dominant religion.
The new program also bars 2,500 spouses of refugees and their children under the age of 21, a group that represented 5% of refugees admitted in 2017.
"What that tells me is this continues to be a ban," said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Maryland-based group that resettles refugees in the U.S. "They had 120 days to resolve this, and instead they’re continuing to ban refugees from majority Muslim countries."
The added restrictions come as President Trump takes drastic steps to slash the number of refugees admitted to the U.S.
President Obama raised the annual cap on refugees to 110,000 in his final year in office as countries around the world struggled to respond to the ongoing global migration crisis. But Trump lowered that to 55,000 in 2017 and has set a cap of 45,000 for 2018, the lowest cap since Congress passed the Refuge Act in 1980.
Trump ordered a 120-day pause on all refugee admissions that started in June following a lengthy battle in the courts. He argued the pause was necessary to give his administration time to review and improve vetting procedures used to screen refugee applicants to ensure terrorists do not take advantage of the program.
That review concluded Tuesday, when the administration announced that refugee admissions would be restarted with the additional restrictions.
The most severe was the blanket restriction on refugee admissions from the 11 countries. The bans will last for 90 days and may be extended further.
Those countries were targeted because federal agencies "continue to have concerns" about the threats posed by people from those nations, according to a memorandum co-signed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats.
The memo said some people from the 11 countries may be allowed to enter the U.S. if their case is deemed to be "in the national interest." But for the most part, federal agencies will shift their focus to applicants from other countries.
The new program also restricts spouses and children who are screened separately from the primary refugee who is sponsoring them. That ban will remain in place indefinitely until the administration is comfortable with the kind of security vetting they face.
And even for applicants coming from approved countries, the new refugee program has a wide range of enhanced vetting procedures.
Those include more in-depth interviews of families seeking refugee status, the collection of additional biometric information to verify people's identities and sending more federal officers overseas to scrutinize applications in person.
In his executive order signed Tuesday, Trump said he allowed the refugee program to resume because the changes made were "generally adequate." But the order made clear that the administration "will apply special measures to certain categories of refugees whose entry continues to pose potential threats to the security and welfare of the United States."
Naureen Shah, senior director of campaigns for Amnesty International USA, a humanitarian group, said the extra hurdles are unnecessary for a refugee screening process that already takes 18-24 months to complete. She said some of the new provisions, including applicants having to list the phone numbers and addresses of all immediate relatives going back 10 years, are unreasonable for people who oftentimes leave all their possessions behind when fleeing violence and persecution.
"We're talking about adding years to the process," Shah said. "At some point you’re jumping through so many hoops that you can’t ever land."