Cuba

U.S. refugee program for citizens of all countries will be suspended for 120 days

Around 300 protesters march at Miami International Airport protesting President Trump's immigration order.
Around 300 protesters march at Miami International Airport protesting President Trump's immigration order. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Amid court orders and airport demonstrations against a presidential order banning entry into the United States of citizens of seven Muslim nations, another aspect of President Donald Trump’s immigration order has been overshadowed: It suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions program for all nations for 120 days.

In fiscal 2015, 70,000 people from around the world arrived in the United States under the refugee program and since 1975, more than 3 million refugees have taken advantage of the resettlement program because they have “a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group,” according to the State Department.

Under the executive order issued by Trump on Friday, the refugee program is on hold for four months while the secretary of state and the secretary of homeland security review the process and application procedures to see if additional measures are needed “to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States.”

In 2015, the United States accepted the most refugees from Burma (18,385); Iraq (12,6760); Somalia (8,858); the Democratic Republic of the Congo (7,876); Bhutan (5,775); and Iran (3,109).

But the numbers change from year to year depending on where the political hot spots are and where persecution escalates. Three of those countries — Iraq, Somalia and Iran — are on the list of seven countries whose citizens — refugees and non-refugees alike — will be excluded from entering the United States for the next 90 days.

In the same fiscal year, 2,300 refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean were admitted with most coming from Cuba (1,527) and Colombia (521).

The order caps the number of refugees who may enter the U.S. at 50,000 for fiscal year 2017.

When the refugee program is reinstated, barring any additional changes to the current directive, the number of refugees who may enter the United States is capped at 50,000 for fiscal year 2017. A higher figure, according to the order, “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Refugees still might be admitted while the program is under review but only on a “case-by-case basis” and only if it is determined that their admission is in the “national interest.”

“We find these measures cruel, inhumane and in violation of international law,” said Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for the Americas. “The United States has obligations when it comes to refugees. Accepting refugees has always been a part of what the United States stands for morally.”

We find these measures cruel, inhumane and in violation of international law.

Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, Amnesty International

The United States is a signatory to the Hague Convention, “and it requires signatories to accept refugees,” said Wilfredo Allen, a Miami immigration attorney. But he said a temporary suspension of the refugee program might not be enough for the United States to be in violation of the treaty.

Those who have already applied for refugee status could still be admitted when the review is completed and under any new procedures that might be implemented. When the refugee program resumes, the secretaries of state and homeland security are directed “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.”

...prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution...

President Donald Trump’s executive order

Although a specific religion isn’t mentioned, it is presumed that the order would give priority to Christian refugees over Muslims.

The abruptness of the president’s order and its scope caught many off guard and is causing lots of confusion.

Although both refugees and asylum seekers may be fleeing persecution, “they are two different things,” Allen said.

Refugee status applies only to an individual abroad who seeks protection from persecution, for example, at a U.S. Embassy or diplomatic mission, said Eduardo Soto, a Coral Gables immigration lawyer. “Asylum is a different policy and a different process,” he said.

Cubans, for example, arriving at a U.S. border point may still apply for asylum if they can establish a “credible fear” of persecution if they return to their homeland. A Cuban arriving at a U.S. airport with a visitor’s visa also could ask for asylum.

“I have a Cuban client now, detained at the border,” who told me by phone that he fears returning to Cuba,” said Soto.

Neither the suspension of the refugee program nor the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which permitted Cubans who reached U.S. territory without a visa to enter the country, will affect the Cuban family reunification program or a visa lottery program that allows at least 20,000 Cuban migrants annually to come to the United States. Those applications are processed through the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

But thousands of Cuban doctors and other medical professionals currently stranded in Colombia or other countries, after leaving international missions where they worked on behalf of the Cuban government, could get caught up in the refugee suspension. In the latter days of the Obama administration, a special Cuban Medical Professional Parole program was eliminated, throwing their future into limbo.

With Trump’s suspension of the refugee program that avenue appears closed to them — at least temporarily. “The suspension of the refugee program may affect these Cuban doctors. It’s a big question on how it [Trump’s order] will be applied,” Allen said.

But he said to him it’s clear that permanent U.S. residents from the seven countries — Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen — cannot just be sent back when they arrive at U.S. airports: “A lawful permanent resident stopped at the airport has every right to come into the United States and fight their case before a judge.”

...develop policy that keeps America safe, builds trust with our partners, and demonstrates compassion to those who need our help.

Senator Bill Nelson, D-Florida

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson sent a letter to Trump on Monday expressing concern that “numerous people were detained at U.S. ports of entry, including an Iraqi interpreter who served alongside our troops.” While he said protecting the United States from the “diabolical threat of terrorism is imperative to our national security,” he urged the president “to develop policy that keeps America safe, builds trust with our partners, and demonstrates compassion to those who need our help.”

South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said she, too, was opposed to the president’s action.

“In no case,” she said, “should the order be applied against individuals who have already received U.S. visas, that are permanent and legal residents of the United States, or those who have been given legal status as refugees.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

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