The United States surpassed the Trump administration’s 50,000-person cap on refugee admissions Wednesday, as a group of about 160 people landed in airports across the country to begin new lives.
All refugees scheduled to fly July 12 were admitted “to ensure an orderly, effective implementation of the 50,000 cap,” according to a State Department statement. By Wednesday afternoon, 50,086 people had entered the country as refugees this year.
The 50,000-person limit is less than half the number of refugees that had been authorized by President Barack Obama and Congress for this fiscal year, ending September 30.
President Trump ordered the cap as part of a January executive order that also sought to suspend the entire refugee resettlement program for 120 days. The order, which also called for a temporary ban on entry of citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, was blocked in multiple iterations by federal courts. The Supreme Court ruled last month that a partial version of Trump’s order could take effect, allowing for the 50,000-person limit on refugees.
The cap isn’t a hard line, however. The Supreme Court ruled that people with a “bona fide” relationship to a person or entity in the United States could still enter, a standard that the administration has since defined to mean those with immediate family in the United States.
“Beginning July 13, only those individuals who have a credible claim to a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States will be eligible for admission through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” the State Department said in a statement.
The president has broad authority to set the number of refugees resettled in the United States, and it’s unclear at what number the administration will set the cap in fiscal year 2018.
The White House did not immediately return requests for comment.
Sean Piazza, a spokesman for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), estimated that between 3,500 and 4,500 refugees abroad “are likely completely ready for departure at this time — meaning that they have cleared security checks and medical exams, and have been assured,” he said.
This month, however, the State Department issued new guidance to the agencies that the federal government contracts to resettle refugees, saying that applicants must provide evidence of a relationship with a close family member before departing to the United States. As a result,thousands of people who have been cleared in background checks to resettle in the United States could be denied entry.
Among Wednesday’s arrivals were a Syrian family of three who landed in New England and a Congolese couple who landed in the Midwest, none of whom would have made it into the country had they been scheduled to arrive one day later, said Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, the resettlement agency that handled their cases. That’s because neither family has immediate relatives in the United States.
Hetfield said some scheduled to arrive in coming days have had their flights canceled despite having completed the government’s vetting process because they don’t meet the new restrictions. That includes a man from Ukraine who had been approved to be resettled as a refugee in the United States, joining his grandmother, Hetfield said. Grandmothers don’t count as providing a “bona fide” relationship under the administration’s guidelines.
Homeland Security officials and refugee resettlement advocates have said the U.S. government’s refugee admissions program — a process of applications and background checks by multiple agencies that can take months or years — already had largely ground to a halt since January.
“They’re doing death by procedure,” Becca Heller, the director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which has sued the federal government over the restrictions, said of the administration. “They’ve realized they can just use bureaucracy to delay so long that no one ever gets in, de facto.”
More than 50,000 people at some stage in the refugee application process remained overseas, as of Thursday, said Michael Knowles, the president of AFGE Local 1924, the union that represents United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The State Department has also notified resettlement agencies that there will be a temporary pause before the government starts booking additional refugees for travel.
Resettlement officials said they don’t know how many of those people will still make it in this year, but predicted it won’t be many.
“You’re going to have a significant slowdown. You’re going to have far fewer people arriving in the next four months, and we’re basically waiting to see how fast the guidance around bona fide relationships can get put into travel packages and then accepted at the airports,” said Kay Bellor, the vice president for programs at one of the resettlement groups, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, which handled 18 of Wednesday’s arrivals.
“Right now we have booking dates through August 15. So we’re assessing whether we’re going to need cancellations,” she added.