The State Department has more than doubled the rate of refugees from Iraq, Syria and other suspect countries in the week since a federal judge’s reprieve, in what analysts said appears to be a push to admit as many people as possible before another court puts the program back on ice.
A staggering 77 percent of the 1,100 refugees let in since Judge James L. Robart’s Feb. 3 order have been from the seven suspect countries. Nearly a third are from Syria alone — a country that President Trump has ordered be banned altogether from the refugee program. Another 21 percent are from Iraq. By contrast, in the two weeks before Judge Robart’s order, just 9 percent of refugees were from Syria and 6 percent were from Iraq.
“There’s no doubt in my mind they would be doing whatever they could to get people in before something changes because, from their perspective, their motivation is to resettle these folks. It would not be the first time that State Department officials have prioritized facilitating someone’s entry to the United States over security concerns,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Mr. Trump issued an executive order Jan. 27 putting in place the early stages of his extreme vetting policy, including an immediate 90-day pause on admitting visitors from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen — all countries where the government says it can’t be sure of its vetting procedures.
The executive order also called for an immediate 120-day halt to admitting refugees from anywhere around the globe. Mr. Trump singled out Syria in particular, saying refugees from there are halted indefinitely.
Late last week Judge Robart ruled Mr. Trump had likely overstepped legal boundaries and issued a temporary restraining order for most of the policy. An appeals court ruled Thursday to uphold the “TRO,” as it’s known in lawyer-speak.
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Immediately after Judge Robart’s decision, the State Department and Homeland Security agencies kicked back into gear, beginning to accept both refugees and visitors from the suspect countries.
Numbers weren’t available on the effects of the broader travel ban, but 1,110 refugees were admitted in the days since the program was restarted — and of those, 849 were from the seven danger countries the president singled out. A whopping 346 were from Syria alone, and another 232 were from Iraq.
The surge has also meant a major jump in the number of self-identified Muslims admitted: 64 percent of the new batch of refugees are from some sect of Islam, compared to just 31 percent in the first weeks of the Trump administration.
“It would appear, based on the numbers, that there is an effort within the refugee resettlement program to rush in as many of the nationals of these seven countries as possible before a ruling is made on the TRO,” said Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA.
Mr. Trump himself seemed to be aware of the changes, posting an oblique Twitter message on Wednesday asking the courts to issue a new decision overturning Judge Robart and reinstating his extreme vetting policy.
“Big increase in traffic into our country from certain areas, while our people are far more vulnerable, as we wait for what should be EASY D!” the president tweeted.
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The State Department, in a statement to The Washington Times explaining the numbers, said it was focusing on “rescheduling those whose travel had been suspended the previous week.”
Nine organizations in the U.S. are chartered by the government to help with resettling refugees here.
Several of them didn’t respond to requests from The Washington Times, but Erol Kekic, executive director of the Church World Service’s refugee program, said it might be a coincidence that so many refugees from the seven countries were being admitted.
He said the cases that have been prioritized are those with urgent medical needs or those whose immediate safety is in question if they remain outside the U.S.
Mr. Kekic said the refugee program has been maligned by the ongoing debate, and he pleaded for a chance to make his case to Mr. Trump.
“What I would hope for is we find a way to communicate with this administration and find a way to sit down and understand why are these, what I’ll call alternative facts, about the danger of refugees being presented, because it’s just not correct,” Mr. Kekic said.
Of the refugees his group was supposed to be handling when the pause was declared, some 100 cases have been derailed. Some of those cases are facing expiration dates when one of their certifications is set to expire soon, which could force them to go further back in the process.
“One hundred twenty days can easily turn into 12 months or longer — or never,” he said.
Mr. Kekic bristled at allegations that the refugee program is a security problem for the U.S., saying the chance of being killed by a refugee in the U.S. was less than the chance of being struck by lightning.
“Refugee is not a dirty word,” he said.
He said refugee advocates are rallying to defend the program, including a plea he expects to be issued later this week by mainline Protestant churches asking their congregations to approach members of Congress and to collect money to support refugees.
One part of Mr. Trump’s order that hasn’t been blocked in the courts is his reduction in the number of refugees to be accepted this year. President Obama had set a 110,000 cap for fiscal year 2017, which runs through Sept. 30. Mr. Trump cut that to 50,000.
Some 34,000 refugees have already been admitted, meaning that even if the courts do keep the program operational, the number of people that can be admitted is severely constrained.
There has been no slowdown in processing cases of asylum claims, which are refugees who manage to make it to the U.S. and claim protection once here.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that first judges asylum claims, said that program wasn’t affected by Mr. Trump’s order.
In a Feb. 2 memo, USCIS Acting Director Lori L. Scialabba said they would also continue processing applications for family members of those approved for refugee or asylum status who were already in the U.S., even if they were from the seven countries Mr. Trump had singled out.
She also said: “USCIS will continue refugee interviews when the person is a religious minority in his or her country of nationality facing religious persecution. Additionally, USCIS will continue refugee interviews in jurisdictions where there is a preexisting international agreement related to refugee processing. USCIS will not approve a refugee application for an individual who we determine would pose a risk to the security or welfare of the United States.”