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Trump’s travel ban is the most difficult for refugees

A Syrian refugee child sits outside his family tent at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern city of Baalbek, Lebanon
Bilal Hussein/Associated Press

The Supreme Court ruling that allowed President Donald Trump to put his travel ban into effect made a key modification that left a big question mark over the status of refugees applicants.

In the uncertainty, the Trump administration appears to be pushing to restrict as many refugees as possible, in a move that could affect thousands of refugee applicants currently stuck in perilous situations.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Trump administration could reinstate its travel ban Thursday, June 29, at 8 pm, but only partially: Anyone with a “bona fide relationship” with a person or organization in America will be allowed to enter, as will anyone who already has a valid visa to enter the US.

That means visa holders with family, business, or educational ties to the United States will not be affected by the executive order, as they would have been under the travel ban’s original iterations.

But there was no clear language in the ruling on what counts as a “bona fide relationship” for refugees: Does having contact with American resettlement agencies like World Relief or Lutheran Social Services count? How early in the refugee application process would these American entities have to have been in contact?

In a press call Thursday morning, the State Department signaled it’s taking a harsh interpretation of the Supreme Court’s ruling. An administration official said that a spot with a resettlement agency wasn't "in and of itself" a bona fide enough reason to allow a refugee into the US — meaning refugees will have to meet a higher, as-yet-unspecified bar:

As regards relationships with entities in the United States, these need to be formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course of events rather than to evade the executive order itself. Importantly, I want to add that the fact that a resettlement agency in the United States has provided a formal assurance for refugees seeking admission is not sufficient, in and of itself, to establish a bona fide relationship under the ruling. We’re going to provide additional information to the field on this.

According to the State Department, refugees will be allowed into the United States if they have been booked to travel through July 6, which resettlement organizations have been informed about.

“They are more or less shutting down the refugee program for the next four months,” Justin Cox, staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said, adding that because of the rigorous vetting processes, this ban could actually delay refugees for much longer than the 120 days in the order, should applicants’ various refugee clearances expire.

Refugee programs could have a case that the travel ban shouldn’t impact them

There is a large number of refugee applicants that already have ties in the United States. But for those who don’t, Cox mades the case that refugee applicants with ties to American resettlement agencies should not be impacted by the ban before the State Department’s guidance.

According to Cox’s interpretation, American refugee resettlement programs have a strong enough relationship with their applicants to count as “bona fide” ties — the administration’s interpretation is “unquestionably against what the Supreme Court said,” Cox said, adding that they will be pursuing legal action soon.

Of course, there are some refugees who would not meet the criteria under the Supreme Court’s guidance, even if legal action against the State Department’s interpretation prevails. There is a large contingent of refugees who go through application processes with international organizations like the United Nations Human Rights Council and are then eventually referred to the United States; they would not have American ties.

Most of those applicants are so far back in the resettlement pipeline that “although it may slow the processing of their refugee applications, they weren’t going to be getting in during the next 120 days anyway,” Cox said.

But there is still a lot of uncertainty around certain groups of refugees, like those that are the plaintiffs in the International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump case the Supreme Court has agreed to take up in October. The lawyers “have bona fide relationships with these individuals — they are suing the president,” Cox said.

Refugee resettlement organizations are unsurprisingly disappointed in the administration’s decision. At the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, these organizations were given guidance that 110,000 refugees would be admitted to the country this year, and staffed up accordingly — the Trump administration has scaled that number down to 50,000, and it’s clear the president is more than willing to taper that number further.

“Refugee applicants are the group that will really be harmed in this situation,” said Kate Melloy Goettel, a litigation attorney at National Immigrant Justice Center.

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