KAKUMA, KENYA (APRIL 3, 2018) (REUTERS) – On Jan. 19, 2017, Aden Hassan’s long wait to start a new life ended when he stepped off a plane in Columbus, Ohio, half a world away from the Kenyan refugee camp where he had lived for a decade.
Years earlier in Mogadishu, Somalia, Hassan’s father, a community organizer, was shot dead by the Islamist militants he opposed. A few years later, a younger brother and sister were killed by gunmen while walking home from school. After Hassan’s mother survived an assassination attempt, she fled with her surviving children to neighboring Kenya.
The Midwestern winter chill could not dampen Hassan’s hope, as he left the airport with his wife, their two young children and his brother, that Ohio would provide a security and stability the family had not known in years. All that remained was for his mother, her second husband, and Hassan’s brother and sister to join them, which refugee officials assured him would happen soon.
“When we landed at the airport, we felt we could start a new life,” said Hassan, now 27.
The next day, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as U.S. president. Nineteen months later, Hassan’s mother, Fatuma Diriye, a diabetic with heart problems, and his other relatives remain in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. Although they were approved for resettlement in the United States at the same time Hassan was, their plans have been repeatedly delayed by the Trump administration’s dismantling of longstanding U.S. refugee policy. The State Department declined to comment on Diriye’s case.
A week after his inauguration, Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries and halting all refugee admissions. Since then, through procedural changes made largely out of public view, the administration has reshaped the U.S. refugee program, slashing overall admissions and all but halting entry for some of the world’s most persecuted people, including Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Somalis.
This year, with a record high 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the United States is on track to take in about 22,000 refugees, a quarter the number admitted in 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the fewest in four decades.
In interviews with Reuters, more than 20 current and former U.S. officials described how the Trump administration has abandoned policies established over decades and embraced by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. The officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, say the administration has rejected internal findings that refugees could be admitted safely and with little expense. Two senior staff members who questioned the administration’s policies were removed from their positions.
The administration has instituted opaque and complicated new security vetting procedures that have bogged down admissions and eliminated many candidates for resettlement who would previously have been accepted, many of the officials said. It has extended the strictest kind of vetting to women as well as men from 11 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. And it has reduced by nearly two-thirds the number of officials conducting refugee interviews, reassigning about 100 of 155 interviewers to handle asylum screenings for people already in the country, including those who crossed the border illegally.
“They’re just stuck,” said Angie Plummer, executive director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Ohio, the group that welcomed Hassan and his family last year. “It’s blocking people who absolutely would have been here two years ago.”
The Trump administration says the changes were necessary.
“Security improvements in the refugee program made in recent years to mandate additional screening for refugee applicants undoubtedly makes Americans safer,” said Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
In addition to far lower admissions overall, the type of refugee admitted has changed under Trump, a Reuters analysis of government data shows. The percentage who are Muslim is now a third what it was two years ago; the percentage who are Europeans has tripled.
The shift has led to striking imbalances. Refugees admitted to the United States from the small European country of Moldova, for example, now outnumber those from Syria by three to one, although the number of Syrian refugees worldwide outnumbers the total population of Moldova.
Somalis like Hassan and his family now have little chance of getting in. As of Sept. 10, 251 Somali refugees have been resettled in America this year, a 97 percent drop from the 8,300 admitted by this point in 2016.