Situation Report: Implications of Trump’s Executive Order on Asylum Seekers & Refugees

Photo by Anne Saint Pierre

Our Stance

We stand by our conviction that refugees and asylum seekers deserve a chance to rebuild their lives in a safer land. Regardless of the political hostility and xenophobia hurled towards refugees by President Trump, those forced to flee their homes to survive will continue to find their way onto our shores. We denounce the President’s closed-door policy towards refugees, regardless of their country of origin, as fervently as we denounce the extremists who have taken advantage of the shameful narrative of the West against muslim refugees. Nevertheless, we must continue to take a stand against Trump’s Islamophobic and anti-refugee measures, and ensure that asylum seekers and refugees– the most frequent victims of extremism around the world– are not scapegoated and turned away. 

While RIF’s mission is to support asylum seekers– who remain the vast majority of the refugees that make it to our shores– we are devastated for the refugees who were bound for our country through the resettlement process and have been stalled or turned away. Likewise, we stand in solidarity with our friends and partners in this cause: organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Charities who have successfully resettled refugees in the US for decades. 

For immigrants and Americans alike, the messy implementation of the ban left airports and asylum offices in chaos. Employees of federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), were left with little to no instructions on how to actually implement this ban. In the following report, we will illustrate the implications of this ban as they apply primarily to asylum seekers. We are currently awaiting more information regarding the federal court’s decision regarding this executive order. 

Important Distinction: Resettled Refugees +  Asylum Seekers

In order to understand the way that the executive order will affect the people that RIF serves, we must first distinguish asylum seekers from resettled refugees. Both groups are considered “refugees” in the general sense of the word, but legally speaking, they achieve this status through different processes, and therefore will face distinct implications as a result of the executive order. 

In essence, refugees who are resettled are seeking safety in the US but are not yet in the US, whereas asylum seekers are seeking safety upon arriving in the US. Likewise, the Syrians sailing to Europe for safety are also asylum seekers rather than resettled refugees. 

The executive order suspended the refugee resettlement process for the next 120 days. It also prohibits the US government from granting any kind of visa to people outside of the US who wish to travel to the US and are citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. This ban is in effect for 90 days. 

Since asylum seekers enter the country with various visas, citizens of the aforementioned countries will no longer be able to obtain visas and seek asylum in the US as long as the ban continues. However, it is worth mentioning that citizens of these countries have already had a very difficult time obtaining visas to the US. For this reason, the ban will likely not drastically change the demographic makeup of the asylum-seeking population. Additionally, this is the reason why even prior to this executive order, Syrian refugees have not often able to seek asylum in the US the way they have been fleeing to Europe en masse. 

Implications of the Executive Order on Asylum Seekers

The executive order does not suspend the asylum program. As far as we have been instructed by attorneys, asylum seekers from the seven banned countries can still apply for asylum. Their cases should continue to be processed by the asylum office in the regular way, and their interviews are still being scheduled. 

However, immigration officers were told last week that they are not allowed to make final decisions in cases concerning people from the seven banned countries until they receive further guidance (expected to come out any day now). This would extend to final decisions in asylum cases, and possibly to work permit applications for asylum seekers from the seven banned countries. Further, the executive order calls for additional detention centers at the border which may divert asylum officers away from the affirmative asylum process– the process our clients undergo– to the defensive asylum process which takes place in detention centers. As we have seen with the surge of Central American minors into the defensive asylum process in 2013, this would further create a backlog and extend the waiting period for the asylum interview beyond the already lengthy current waiting time of 2-3 years. 

The asylum program grants asylum to the spouses and children of people whose asylum cases are granted. These family members – called derivatives – are automatically granted asylum if they are inside the US. Family members outside the United States can apply for a visa to join the principal asylee in the United States. However, derivatives who are citizens of the seven banned countries will not be granted visas to come to the US as long as the travel ban is in place.

As asylum seekers most commonly enter the US on their own, they are often forced to leave behind their families with the hope of reuniting when they are granted asylum. If the ban is put into effect, asylum seekers from those seven countries will no longer be able to bring their spouses and children to the US: a devastating outcome for the many parents who sacrificed everything for a chance to reunite their families in safety.

Conclusion

As the executive order does not suspend the asylum program, it will not stem the tide of asylum seekers fleeing to the US. It will, however, make the process of seeking asylum increasingly arduous and taxing on those who flee here. The current political climate, with its rhetoric of banning refugees and muslims will continue to force thousands of asylum seekers into the shadows where they will be preyed upon by unscrupulous providers. If the process now takes even longer, asylum seekers will be stuck in a painful limbo, away from their families and in dire need of our support. 

Regardless of whether or not the ban is in effect, asylum seekers will remain at a severe disadvantage in terms of support upon arriving to the US. For perspective, in 2016, 40,000 individuals applied for asylum in NYC, as compared to 283 refugees who were resettled in the city. 

RIF is currently the only NGO in NYC that focuses on on welcoming and supporting asylum seekers through legal and psychosocial support. The phrase, “more important than ever” has been used a lot lately, but this singular moment calls for that level of urgency. Asylum seekers need us more than ever, and so, we are thankful to you for standing with us and supporting our work during these trying times.