Refugee processing in the United States appears to be undergoing a significant slowdown, even though courts have blocked the Trump administration's early efforts to suspend refugee admissions.
Ever since President Donald Trump signed an executive order in January banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries and suspending refugee arrivals for 120 days, the Department of Homeland Security has refrained from interviewing refugee applicants, The Washington Post reported.
Homeland Security officials and several refugee resettlement groups told The Post that they were not aware of any interviews that had taken place since Trump's first travel ban was issued, even though multiple federal judges have since blocked parts of two executive orders Trump signed on the issue — the first signed in January and the second in March.
A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking for details on the operations of the US Refugee Admissions Program, and whether interviews are still being conducted.
"According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, we are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis in modern history," the letter read. "We must not lose focus of the need to also protect others fleeing persecution around the world."
Democratic senators Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York were among the signatories, as were Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Refugee resettlement agencies have even begun cutting back on their overseas staff due to the slowdown. Jen Smyers, director of refugee policy and advocacy with the Church World Service, told The Post she's never seen a four-month suspension of the admissions program.
"Refugee processing has ground to a halt," she said.
A State Department spokesperson told The Post the department is "continuing to admit refugees" in "conformity with the Department of Justice's guidance regarding the Court Order," including scheduling travel for refugees who have already been screened and approved, and scheduling and conducting additional pre-screening interviews.
Trump has frequently called for fewer refugees to be allowed into the US, due to fears that terrorists posing as refugees could gain entry. Amid the worldwide refugee crisis that has worsened in recent years, former President Barack Obama had proposed raising the refugee admissions cap to 110,000 in fiscal year 2017 from 85,000 in 2016 — but Trump in his original travel ban lowered the cap to 50,000.
The US accepted 2,070 refugees in March and 3,316 in April — the two lowest monthly totals since 2013, according to a USA Today analysis of the State Department's Refugee Processing Center. The State Department told the newspaper it had "adjusted the pace of refugee arrivals" in response to the lowered refugee cap.
The refugee program isn't the only immigration process that appears to be undergoing a slowdown in recent months. The senators' letter comes just days after a Human Rights First report documented 125 instances between November and April of asylum-seekers being turned away from US border entry points by customs agents, without so much as an interview with an asylum officer, as is required by law.
The extent of the rejections at the border is unclear, as data is not kept on how often customs agents deny asylum-seekers entry to the US. Human Rights First told The New York Times the number is likely far higher than 125, as most migrants do not contact lawyers or American advocates after they are denied entry.
Trump has not issued any directive to customs agents to reject asylum-seekers, and Customs and Border Protection told The Times that their agents process all asylum-seekers for interviews with asylum officers.
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