The flights for thousands of refugees were booked weeks in advance. Apartments, leased ahead of their arrival, even had the rent paid in full through the first month. Volunteers added their personal touch by sprucing up the living rooms with used furniture and stocking the refrigerators with food.
At the end of last week, refugee resettlement organizations in 40 major cities across the country braced for the next wave of arrivals. But instead of beginning the new lives planned out for them in the United States, advocates say, more than 850 refugees were told to not even bother heading to the airport.
President Trump’s new executive order to shut out all refugees for 120 days, and Syrians indefinitely, is dramatically upending a system designed specifically to welcome them in. With resettlement operations suddenly screeching to a halt, organizations are left to tend to the family members devastated by Trump’s order, knowing full well the grim reality of what any delay in the system can mean for refugees who have fought for years to come to the United States.
“This in effect can be a permanent ban. Many people may never be able to come,” said Lavinia Limón, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Chaos unfolded worldwide within hours of Trump signing the order on Friday, but the ban had a delayed effect on many organizations in the resettlement networks that don’t generally accept new refugees over weekends.
And not all refugees were immediately affected. Those fleeing from the seven Muslim-majority countries targeted in the ban — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — were immediately blocked from entering the United States. However, refugees scheduled to travel from any other country were given a six-day grace period before the ban would go into full effect.
The disparate impact on refugees sparked widespread confusion this week, as groups sought to clarify which individual refugees were already blocked from airports worldwide, and which would make it to the United States under the wire.
Case workers said it was still unclear whether a 13-year-old refugee boy traveling from the Democratic Republic of the Congo this week would still be able to reunite with his father in St. Louis. Others wondered the fate of a 16-year-old girl from Guatemala or a Pentecostal social worker fleeing from Uganda, both of whom were scheduled to land before the February 2 cut off.
Trump billed the refugee suspension, coupled with broad travel restrictions against nationals from the seven banned countries, as necessary steps to keep Americans safe. However, no foreign nationals from the countries targeted in Trump’s ban have ever killed Americans in a terror attack on U.S. soil. Attacks by refugees are similarly rare. In the 14 years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States resettled 784,000 refugees. “In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities — and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible,” wrote Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute.
“If the intention of this executive order is to make America safer, then it is hopelessly misguided,” said Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute of St. Louis. “There is no factual information that can lead one to assume that eliminating refugee flows, particularly from the countries identified, is going to keep us safe.”
Broad elements of Trump’s immigration plan have already been tied up in federal court. Still, it is unlikely that the portions limiting refugee flows would be brought down by legal challenge, says Andrew Schoenholtz, director of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University. The president has broad discretion in determining how many refugees are allowed in the country each year.
Changes to the program are more likely to be the result of pressure from politicians than that of the courts, he said. “It’s a program where the United States brings refugees from abroad, so until they get here, no particular rights are going to be seen by any court.”
It is likely the that overall reduction in the number of refugees allowed in the United States each year will have the most lasting impact of Trump’s orders signed Friday. The president is dramatically reshaping historic levels of refugees accepted, with totals now at 50,000 a year, down from 110,000 under President Obama.
Resettlement organizations, which receive funding tied on the number of refugees they assist, fear that the sudden shift and dramatic downsizing will make it all but impossible to maintain operations.
“It’s an immediate drain on these local agencies,” said Bill Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This is not a cash-rich network.”
Refugees undergo an extensive vetting process that takes an average of 18 to 24 months to complete in lining up clearances from at least six different federal agencies before they’re admitted into the United States. And security screenings are so intense that they expire over time, said Melanie Nezer, vice president with the refugee resettlement agency HIAS, meaning that a 120-day suspension in admissions could force some refugees to redo the full vetting process.
In St. Louis, refugee case worker Hayder Alfatli said he was bombarded by dozens of calls and overwhelmed by the number of people showing up at his office sobbing in search of answers. Even while grocery shopping on Friday, hours after Trump signed the order, Alfatli said people approached him in public begging for help.
“What happened to my wife? Will I never see her again?” asked a young Syrian man who had arrived in the United States alone a year earlier.
“What do we do? Tell us what to do,” two more Syrian women begged while standing in the aisle of Schnapps.
Alfatli didn’t know how to answer. A refugee himself, Alfatli too was waiting for the rest of his family to reunite with him from Iraq. His cell phone kept ringing through the weekend with more fearful people asking for his help.
Feeling helpless, he just let some calls ring.
But after a while he had to shut his phone off.
Amanda Sakuma is an independent journalist covering immigration and social justice.