WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's latest executive order on refugees is, in effect, a continuation of his ban on a majority of applicants, according to refugee advocates. They say the continued restrictions will lead to lost time and lost lives.
Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department to resume refugee processing following a 120-day suspension, now that new screening measures are in place. But the order also imposes tight new restrictions on refugees from 11 countries that have been deemed to warrant extra screening and it indefinitely suspends a program that reunites refugees with their spouses and children.
"It's the refugee ban all over again," said Jenny Yang, the vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, a humanitarian aid organization. She said the new restrictions will affect a significant percentage of those in the refugee program.
The extra restrictions apply to people who are citizens of or have lived in 11 countries where male, adult applicants were already subject to an additional security review called a security advisory opinion. Those countries, according to a State Department advisory obtained by the Associated Press, are: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, the Republic of South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and certain stateless Palestinian males.
More than half of refugees in the pipeline to be admitted into the U.S. come from those countries, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the program's impact.
For the next 90 days, applicants from those countries will be considered on a "case-by-case bases," and only refugees whose admissions are "deemed to be in the national interest" and who pose "no threat to the security or welfare of the United States" will be admitted, according to a memorandum to the president from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats.
In the meantime, the government will also prioritize applications from other countries, moving resources away from processing those who need extra screening.
It is unclear how many refugees will be able to satisfy the new screening requirements and how long the new measures will take. But refugees already face an extensive backlog and waiting periods that can take years.
Advocates are also raising concerns about new information requirements for all refugees that could prove onerous for applicants who may have had to flee their homes, with little access to documents and limited contact with close family members.
Under new rules that took effect Wednesday, outlined in a State Department program announcement, applicants must now provide the U.S. with their phone numbers, email addresses and the addresses of every place they've lived for 30 days or longer, going back 10 years, instead of five. They must also provide current phone numbers and email addresses for all members of their family trees — including parents, siblings, children, spouses, ex-spouses, and the parents of spouses.
"If you're talking about a refugee situation, people have moved from a camp to maybe moving to an urban center to maybe squatting in someone's apartment," said Jen Smyers, who helps run the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, one of nine organizations that work to resettle refugees in the U.S.
The government has also expanded its efforts to collect information to better determine whether refugees are being truthful about their status; improving information-sharing between agencies; stationing fraud detection officers at certain locations overseas; and training screeners to weed out fraud and deception.
The U.S. refugee program is already the most extensive vetting program in the country.
Also suspended indefinitely is the "following-to-join" program, which allows the spouses and children of refugees to join them in the U.S. Officials argue they need time to implement new, more rigorous screening measures that are as stringent as those applied to refugees.
"Our biggest concern is keeping families apart. We know that there are folks that are trying desperately to rejoin their families," said Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and immigrants. "It just seems cruel to keep children from their parents, keep spouses apart."
Taken together, Yang said the measures represent a death knell for the U.S. refugee program.
"If you look at them all together, you're effectively dismantling the entire program," she said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday defended the efforts, saying the U.S. was taking steps to "eliminate vulnerabilities" in the refugee screening process that could be exploited by "those who would bring harm to our homeland."
"The Trump Administration remains committed to a comprehensive and compassionate refugee policy, and these new measures will ensure the United States can continue to help some of the world's most vulnerable people without compromising the safety and security of the American people," he said in a statement.
Trump last month announced that he was capping refugee admissions at 45,000 for the year that started Oct. 1, a significant cut from the 110,000 limit put in place a year earlier by President Barack Obama and the lowest number in modern history. The actual number admitted this year could also be far lower than that.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.