Yesterday, the Supreme Court made yet another consequential decision on President Trump’s refugee and immigrant travel ban. The ruling consisted of two parts. It said that travelers from six Muslim-majority countries who have family members here must be allowed to enter the country, but it also allowed the Trump administration to enforce tighter restrictions on refugees.
It's not immediately clear how the decision will affect the Triangle’s refugee resettlement programs. But local agencies are already bracing for a tough road ahead.
“There is so much change even on a day-to-day basis that it has become very difficult for us to have a very accurate prediction of what sort of impact there will be on us and our clients and future clients in the immediate aftermath of any ruling,” says Ellen Andrews, the North Carolina area director for Christian World Service, a refugee resettlement agency based in Durham. “That being said, we have already seen refugee arrivals slow down considerably.”
Yesterday’s decision was the most recent twist in Trump’s months-long effort temporarily halt the country’s refugee program and block entry to the U.S. from a handful of Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Both aspects of the travel ban have been met with fierce opposition from critics, who say that the order is an unconstitutional effort to ban Muslims from entering the country—which Trump himself called for during the presidential campaign. Though both provisions had been halted by the courts, the Supreme Court last month agreed to hear the full case in October.
And the meantime, SCOTUS came to a compromise of sorts: the Trump administration could continue to enforce the ban on travelers and refugees as long as they did not have a “bona fide relationship” with a "person or entity" in the U.S. The court did not specify exactly what type of relationship could be considered bona fide, but the Trump administration interpreted it narrowly: only a parent, spouse, fiance, child, sibling, son- or daughter-in-law, or a parent-in-law, excluding grandparents, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, and brothers- and sisters-in-law.
The administration also excluded all refugees who had already made contact with resettlement agencies from its interpretation of bona fide, affecting an estimated twenty-four thousand refugees who had formal assurances of relocation from resettlement agencies. Last week, however, U.S. District Judge Derrick K. Watson of Hawaii said that the administration’s interpretations were too narrow and ruled that refugees who had been promised relocation by a resettlement agency could not be excluded.
In its decision yesterday, however, the Supreme Court allowed those restrictions on refugee resettlements to stand.
CWS's Andrews said the agency had already given refugees assurance of relocation, and they would have been able to travel before yesterday's ruling. Now, the future is unclear.
"At this point, we don't really know," she says.
What Andrews does know is that the number of refugees the agency has resettled so far this year is low, and it will likely remain so. To date, the agency has relocated about two hundred refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
But due to the the increased restrictions and the Trump administration's decision to halve the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2017, Andrews doesn't expect those numbers to increase much this summer—a time that's typically "extraordinarily busy" for resettlement agencies.
"We don’t know exactly how many refugees will be able to arrive, but we know that it will be a trickle of people at best," Andrews says.
Still, she adds, the agency remains committed to its mission.
"This is the last sliver of hope for thousands and thousands of people every year who have no other opportunity to get their life back and rebuild and ensure that their children have the opportunity to create their own futures,” she says. “Refugees are by far the most carefully vetted individuals entering the United States, so we really just think that this travel ban framed as an effort to protect national security is completely misguided. And also mean-spirited to target the world’s most vulnerable people in this way."