Refugees with connections to the nine refugee resettlement organizations in the United States should be allowed to enter the country in accordance with the Supreme Court's ruling Monday that allowed a limited version of President Donald Trump's travel ban to go into effect, advocates argue.
After the nation's high court decided Monday that it would allow a scaled-back version of Trump's March 6 executive order on immigration to be enacted, opponents of the travel ban were left wondering whether the the Supreme Court considers relationships with a refugee resettlement organization to be the type of "bona fide" relationships necessary to allow them to enter the country, once the 50,000 refugee cap set for fiscal year 2017 is met in July.
As the travel ban — which bans immigration from six Muslim majority countries for 90 days and refugee resettlement for 120 days — took effect on Thursday, the Trump administration explained in guidelines sent to U.S. embassies and consulates what it considers to a "bona fide relationship."
The guidelines state that only family members who are a parent, spouse, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law who are already inside the U.S. would constitute a "bona fide" personal relationship. However, other close family relationships such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces or cousins would not be considered "bona fide" family ties.
As for entities, the guidelines state that people seeking access to the United States must show formal proof of their relationship with the a business or educational institution. However, an administration official declared in a press call Thursday that "the fact that a resettlement agency in the United States has provided a formal assurance for refugees seeking admission is not sufficient, in and of itself, to establish a bona fide relationship under the ruling."
Legal action has already been filed to seek clarity on the Supreme Court's order, which was somewhat vague about what constitutes a "bona fide" relationship. On Thursday, the state of Hawaii asked a federal judge to clarify the ruling and argued that the administration's interpretation is too narrow and violates the ruling.
On a press call Friday, leaders of resettlement agencies authorized to resettle refugees in the United States decried the administration's interpretation of the ruling.
"Our argument is that under an interpretation of a clear reading of the Supreme Court decision is that a relationship with a resettlement agency does establish a 'bona fide' relationship for purposes of the ban," said Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president of public affairs for HIAS, which was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
"Some examples that the Supreme Court gave of what could constitute a bona fide entity within the U.S. — this was more specifically towards travelers and not towards refugees — is an employer or university sponsor or some other U.S.-based entity who would have a relationship with someone traveling to the United States," she added. "We think it is pretty clear that a resettlement agency also constitutes such an entity. If the Supreme Court did not intend that, then the Supreme Court has a misunderstanding of resettlement work."
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The U.S. resettlement program is by invitation only and refugees are mostly referred to the United States by the United Nations. Refugees selected for resettlement in the United States go through an extensive vetting process that usually takes as long as 18 months to complete and spans multiple federal agencies and databases.
Resettlement agencies, such as HIAS, Church World Service, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, World Relief, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services and others, partner with churches, other local institutions and volunteers around the country to make sure that once refugees land in the United States and are placed in their communities that they have a home and relationships within the communities to help them get acclimated in their new lives.
"We also imagine the debate about this in the administration, thinking that there was significant debate among people who really do understand resettlement in the administration and those who don't," Nezer said. "It seems pretty clear that this decision was made by people who don't know or don't much care about how resettlement works."
Betsy Fisher, the policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, an organization that sued the Trump administration over the travel ban, said during a press call Friday that her organization is in a position of seeking clarity.
"The Supreme Court's opinion was pretty clear that this travel ban should not apply to people who have any 'bona fide' connection 'at all.' The words 'at all' were very clearly in the opinion," Fisher argued. "We firmly believe that a connection to a U.S.-based resettlement agency is roughly equivalent to a student who has an offer of admission. In both cases, you have an offer letter from a university and a clear-documented formal connection. For a refugee who is traveling, you have a clear documented connection with a local community, with housing, with connection to provide services."
Around July 6 is when the United States is expected to hit the 50,000 refugee cap for fiscal year 2017 that Trump set in his executive order. After that, the "bona fide" standard will be going into effect for refugees, Nezer explained.
"We have not received detailed explanations about how the policy will be implemented. We have [received] clarity that a refugee booked for travel can arrive but we don't know what is happening to the refugees that were booked to arrive after July 6," Hans Van de Weerd, the vice president of U.S. programs at the resettlement agency International Rescue Committee, said during the press call.
Van de Weerd added that International Rescue Committee has estimated that of about 2,500 refugees they were expecting to receive in the months remaining in the 2017 fiscal year, that about 1,950 of them would not meet the standard of relationship that the government has imposed.
"We are looking at serious numbers of people who will be negatively impacted by the ban," he said. "We as a refugee agency are trying to get a better handle on that number. But this gives you a good indication of how serious this interpretation of the Supreme Court order is."
Naomi Steinberg, the director of Refugee Council USA, added that there are over 26,000 refugees total who have gone through security vetting and have been approved to the come the United States and be resettled around the United States.
"Many of them are going to be impacted by this decision," she said.