Center for American Progress

Pausing the Refugee Resettlement Program Will Harm the Most Vulnerable of Arrivals

Pausing the Refugee Resettlement Program Will Harm the Most Vulnerable of Arrivals

Stopping the refugee program even temporarily will decimate refugee resettlement and leave vulnerable refugees to languish indefinitely.

Protesters assemble at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, after earlier in the day two Iraqi refugees were detained while trying to enter the country. (AP/Craig Ruttle)
Protesters assemble at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, after earlier in the day two Iraqi refugees were detained while trying to enter the country. (AP/Craig Ruttle)

In the month since President Trump signed his executive order to ban Muslims and refugees from entering the country, the public has focused on the most odious of the ban’s provisions, which barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States; stopped Syrian refugee resettlement indefinitely; and, in a thinly veiled attempt at discriminating against Muslim refugees and privileging Christian refugees, privileged the resettlement of religious minorities fleeing persecution because of their beliefs. Far less attention, however, has been spent on the effects of the order’s provision to “pause” the entire refugee resettlement program for 120 days.

A federal judge in Washington State temporarily put this part of the order on hold, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. But now, with the Trump administration set to sign a new version of the same executive order, this provision attacking refugees is certain to return. Such a provision could ultimately decimate the resettlement program and leave vulnerable refugees stuck abroad indefinitely.

The refugee resettlement program has a long history in the United States, rooted in efforts to resettle those affected by World War II. The program is a longstanding public-private partnership focusing on resettlement of refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution, particularly those in imminent danger and their family.

The U.S. resettlement program is also the most sophisticated and secure program of its kind: All refugees admitted to the U.S. must first go through a series of overlapping security screenings, interviews, medical checks, and the like, all of which take on average two years to complete. In the case of Syrian refugees, for example, the process contains 21 different steps.

There is considerable confusion about how refugees and the refugee program will be affected by a 120-day suspension of resettlement. A common misperception is that a suspension merely maintains the status quo, such that once the program starts back up again refugees will be able to travel to the United States just as they would have been able to travel here today. That is incorrect. Each step in the screening process has a narrow—and different—validity period, and because these checks overlap, refugees often have less than a two-month window during which all of their security and other checks are valid, allowing them to travel to the United States. These checks include:

Any delay in allowing a refugee to travel can set off a domino effect of expiring clearances that send the individual back to the beginning of the process. And trying to align the validity periods for a family that would be resettled together is even more difficult—often family members have different clearance times that all must overlap to be able to enter the United States.

Even one day of delay in the carefully crafted system could be a death sentence for vulnerable refugees who are waiting to come to the United States to be treated for life threatening illnesses. These stories include that of a nine-year-old Somali child with congenital heart problems who was left waiting at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, a Somali boy with a severe intestinal disorder who was stranded at a refugee camp without the colostomy bags he needs and a four-month-old infant from Iran who was in “immediate need of open-heart surgery.”

Once approved for travel, refugees often sell off their belongings, give up their places in refugee camps, and—if they were able to find work while waiting for resettlement—leave their jobs in preparation for the trip. If President Trump’s reissued ban succeeds in pausing the program, travel-approved refugees will be stranded in limbo.

Significantly lower numbers of refugees will be resettled

While much of the refugee and Muslim ban has been on hold, the January 27 executive order also slashed the number of refugees that the United States will resettle in fiscal year 2017 from 110,000 to just 50,000; this reduction has already gone into effect even as it remains the subject of ongoing litigation. It is significant that in the midst of an unprecedented global refugee crisis, this target of 50,000 refugee admissions is the lowest figure set since presidents began setting annual targets pursuant to the Refugee Act of 1980.

Given that the United States has already resettled roughly 35,000 refugees this fiscal year, that only leaves 15,000 more people to enter for the rest of 2017.  This does not include the 67,000 refugees who are in the U.S. pipeline and already approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS. Additionally, the U.N. estimates that worldwide there are 65 million displaced people. With such a significant decrease in the number of refugees accepted into the country, families will be forced to wait longer overseas. These longer wait times will create a further backlog on top of whatever backlog is created by those individuals having to restart the process due to expiring clearances under the pause.

Additionally, with disruptions to the refugee program, organizations who resettle families in the United States will also have to halt the work they do to process refugees and prepare for their arrival, creating longer backlogs and logistical hurdles. Without a functioning resettlement program, resettlement organizations and their local partners run the risk of shutting their doors permanently, dismantling our country’s capacity to serve refugees already here and welcome new refugees when a future administration decides to reverse these cuts in arrivals. In fact one resettlement agency, World Relief, recently laid off over 140 staff and closed five of its offices.


The United States has a rich history of accepting refugees, many of whom are women and children fleeing violence and political strife in their home countries. Refugees integrate into the communities in which they are resettled and contribute to the economy, often times revitalizing communities. Trump’s executive order fails to recognize any of these contributions. Instead, it leaves refugees and their families in jeopardy overseas and undermines America’s reputation for helping the most vulnerable on an international stage.

Rita Medina is the Immigration Campaign Manager at the Center for American Progress. Philip E. Wolgin is the Managing Director for Immigration Policy at the Center.

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Rita Medina

Immigration Campaign Manager

 (Phil Wolgin)

Philip E. Wolgin

Former Managing Director, Immigration Policy

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