WASHINGTON—For the first time in more than 30 years, the United States went an entire month without welcoming any refugees.
President Donald Trump delayed his approval of this year’s refugee cap until Nov. 1, one month after the fiscal year began, so the State Department could not admit any refugees in October. Thousands of refugees who had received government clearance to come to the United States had to delay their moves. The intergovernmental group International Organization for Migration canceled hundreds of flights that were already booked.
World Relief had 126 refugees in the pipeline for resettlement. Instead of greeting some of them at the airport in Spokane, Wash., as planned, the Christian aid group had to tell the refugees’ family members already in the United States that their long-awaited reunions might not happen.
“Thankfully, now that [the cap is] signed, they should be able to come now,” said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief. “But it took some effort to assure them it wasn’t going to happen again.”
Andrea Simpson, the director of resettlement at World Relief’s Spokane office, shared the story of a 21-year-old Congolese woman who fled her country with her family in 2006. In 2015, after waiting years in a refugee camp in Burundi, the family was processed for resettlement. She agreed to travel separately from her parents and younger brother if needed as a way to speed up the process. While she made it to the states in September, the rest of her family’s flights were canceled.
“Her dad is 75 and her mom is over 60—so she’s concerned about their welfare,” Simpson said. “She’s always been around to make sure her family is fine, so that’s really tough on her.”
Simpson and Yang explained that when the United States clears refugees to enter, they often sell most of their belongings and say goodbye to their communities. “So any flight cancellation is a significant disruption, just like if you were moving your whole life to a new country,” Yang said. “So for them, it caused significant challenges, especially when you don’t know when it’s going to be rebooked.”
CNN reported that the State Department delayed travel arrangements for refugees three times throughout October. The administration lifted the moratorium on admissions on Tuesday.
The last time the United States intentionally paused refugee admissions was in November 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. Even then, the government did not completely halt admissions but narrowed them to a trickle. By the end of that November, President George W. Bush had signed off on a new refugee cap, and the numbers began to pick back up. World Relief said that of the 3 million refugees resettled to the United States since the Refugee Act of 1980, not one has taken the life of a U.S. citizen in a terrorist attack.
Simpson said the Congolese woman’s family has not yet received new airline tickets. She hoped nothing would happen again to derail their arrival in the United States. “This kind of thing just adds to the trauma overall of the people we’re serving,” she said. “If this program is meant to be a humanitarian effort—then this kind of practice is inconsistent with the purpose of the program overall.”
WORLD has updated this story to reflect that the Congolese woman’s family does not have tickets to travel to the United States.