Talk about a whirlwind.
To begin, a brief recap of the dramatic, confounding changes made to America’s immigration rules in the last week:
On Jan. 27 — Holocaust Remembrance Day to be precise — President Trump signed a sweeping executive order suspending the entire U.S. refugee program for 120 days and cutting the maximum number of refugees allowed into the U.S. each year by more than half.
The order also blocked travel to the U.S. for at least 90 days from seven predominantly Muslim nations: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Iraq was subsequently removed from the list in March.
Although not technically a Muslim ban — as Trump proposed during his presidential campaign — the order does give priority to Christian refugees and other religious minorities from Muslim-majority nations. It also indefinitely bars all Syrian refugees, thousands of whom continue to flee their country’s bloody civil war.
Announced as a national security measure to protect the U.S. from terrorist threats, the president’s actions instantly unleashed a global outcry and fierce protests. It has also resulted in multiple lawsuits and scenes of chaos at airports around the world, where travelers have been detained and held in legal limbo. Within a week of the order, tens of thousands of visas had already been revoked.
But then this happened …
Washington State and Minnesota quickly filed suit, challenging the legality of Trump’s order. On Feb. 3, a U.S. district judge temporarily blocked the seven-nation ban, allowing travelers with valid visas to resume entering the country. The ruling was immediately appealed by the administration but quickly upheld by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a unanimous decision announced on Thursday, Feb. 9. The case will likely make its way to U.S. Supreme Court soon.
Per the court’s ruling, the United States will, for now, resume admitting new refugees, but many fewer than before. Under President Obama it was on pace to resettle 110,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017 (October 2016 – September 2017). Trump’s recent actions, however, reduce the yearly refugee cap to 50,000, a part of the executive order the judge kept intact.
Because nearly 33,000 refugees have already been accepted since the beginning of FY 2017, only about 17,000 more refugees can now be resettled over the next eight months, a dramatic slowdown in the once abundant flow of refugees entering the country.
“The floodgates are not open for refugees,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
The United States has for decades been the world’s top resettlement destination for refugees, with roughly 3 million admitted here since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. But as Pew Research notes, refugee admission rates have fluctuated over the years, including an almost complete shutdown for three months after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Despite Trump’s insistence on the need for “extreme vetting” of immigrants, the United States has one of the world’s most intensive refugee admissions procedures. The process can takes at least 18 months, and includes a thorough review by numerous federal agencies, background checks, in-person interviews, health screenings and, for some refugees, cultural orientations.
And although the purported rationale of suspending the refugee program is to prevent potential terrorists from entering the country and harming Americans, there have been strikingly few refugee-related incidents in the U.S. In fact, of the more than 800,000 refugees resettled since 9/11, only three have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. And no refugee has committed murder on U.S. soil in a terrorist act.
Terrorism fears, however, were heightened last September and November, when two Somali men injured multiple people in separate attacks in Minnesota and Ohio. Both men had come to America as child refugees, but had since lived here for years.
Where recent refugees came from
The U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2015 – Sept. 30, 2016), according to data from the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, the largest number of admissions since 1999.
Nearly half of all refugees in FY 2016 came from just three countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Burma (Myanmar). The largest number of refugees over the last decade have come from Burma (159,692) and Iraq (135,643).
Of the refugees admitted in FY 2016, nearly 39,000 — or roughly 45 percent — were Muslim, the highest number of record.
Where they were resettled
More than half of recent refugees were resettled in just 10 states, with California, Texas and New York taking in nearly a quarter in FY 2016. Interestingly, though, the three states with the highest resettlement rates per capita were the Republican-strongholds of Nebraska, North Dakota and Idaho. For more on the resettlement process, this article from KPCC explains how it works.
Accepting large numbers of refugees has never been a particularly popular option among the U.S. public. In a Pew Research poll, 54 percent of registered voters — and 87 percent of Trump supporters — said the U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees from Syria. As Pew notes, “U.S. public opinion polls from previous decades show Americans have largely opposed admitting large numbers of refugees from countries where people are fleeing war and oppression.”