Arkansas advocates see roadblocks after refugees ban eased

Posted: October 26, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

President Donald Trump has lifted a blanket ban on refugees resettling in the U.S., but many people seeking haven will "still be effectively blocked" from the country, an Arkansas advocate said.

Stricter screening methods that Trump ordered Tuesday, while vague, may lengthen an already yearslong process that is difficult for refugees to navigate, said Frank Head Jr., director of the Catholic Charities Resettlement Office in Springdale, echoing advocates nationwide.

Additionally, the U.S. will largely continue to block refugees from 11 specific countries while even tougher vetting measures are considered for those nations.

"Right now, we've been told not to count on any arrivals for the foreseeable future," said Emily Linn, director of the newly formed Canopy Northwest Arkansas, which resettled 55 refugees last year. "When we hear there's a [resettlement] in X location from X country, then we'll know, OK, things are moving."

[U.S. immigration: Data visualization of selected immigration statistics, U.S. border map]

The new "enhanced vetting" procedures for all refugees include collecting additional biographical information to better determine whether refugees are being truthful about their statuses; improving information-sharing between agencies; stationing fraud detection officers at certain locations overseas; and training screeners to weed out fraud and deception.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the new measures "eliminate vulnerabilities" in the screening process that could be exploited by "those who would bring harm to our homeland."

Jennifer Sime, senior vice president of U.S. programs for the International Rescue Committee aid group, said in advance of the announcement that she was concerned the new screening procedures would add months or even years to the most urgent refugee cases.

Canopy, which hasn't resettled a refugee since July because of the suspension, is working with 26 refugees cleared to move to the U.S.

"We don't know what this new vetting procedure entails," Linn said. "It could be so rigorous and intense that it could take several extra months for people to make it through the vetting procedures."

The United Nations refugee agency estimates that there are 17.2 million refugees fleeing conflict or persecution worldwide.

Trump's order comes a month after he capped annual refugee admissions to the U.S. at 45,000, down from 110,000 the year before. Since 2010, the U.S. has accepted 67,000 refugees per year on average, according to U.S. State Department data.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in a statement said refugees from 11 undisclosed countries will remain banned from U.S. entry for 90 days while the Trump administration considers tougher rules for those nations, except for those approved on a case-by-case basis.

Reuters reported that those countries are Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Of 141 refugees resettled in Arkansas since fiscal 2010, 44 were fleeing three of those 11 countries -- Iran, Iraq and Syria -- according to State Department data.

Head, of Catholic Charities, said the U.S. vetting methods are already the world's strictest.

"They don't really tell us [what the new measures are] other than just making it difficult for people and sometimes requiring the kind of documents that would be impossible for a refugee to have," Head said.

For example, Head said, a police clearance letter from a person's hometown can be impossible to obtain from a city sacked by a terrorist organization.

Canopy's Linn said the focus on increasing screening to reduce terrorism misses the mark. Children and grandchildren of refugees are more at risk of growing to resent the country than those who are directly granted access to resettle here, she said.

"I don't dismiss the fact that there are security risks to think about," Linn said. "I think they are more to do with the long-term integration process, the issues we've seen from radicalization from second- or third-generation refugees in this country. ... We're looking in the wrong place right now, and that's concerning."

Disruptions in the admission process affect people previously approved to travel to the United States in numerous ways, Linn said.

For example, refugees cannot make the trip unless their health and security clearances are active, but those clearances have expiration dates. Approvals and renewals, for many refugees, are available only when government officials arrive at their specific refugee camps, sometimes after being gone for several months.

"It could get really out of hand really fast," Linn said.

Information for this article was contributed by Darlene Superville and Joss Lederman of The Associated Press.

A Section on 10/26/2017