Special Report: Slamming the door – How Trump transformed U.S. refugee program

WASHINGTON/KAKUMA, KENYA (Reuters) (Sept. 12) – On Jan. 19, 2017, Aden Hassan’s long wait to start a new life ended when he stepped off a plane in Columbus, Ohio, half a world away from the Kenyan refugee camp where he had lived for a decade.

Years earlier in Mogadishu, Somalia, Hassan’s father, a community organizer, was shot dead by the Islamist militants he opposed. A few years later, a younger brother and sister were killed by gunmen while walking home from school. After Hassan’s mother survived an assassination attempt, she fled with her surviving children to neighboring Kenya.

The Midwestern winter chill could not dampen Hassan’s hope, as he left the airport with his wife, their two young children and his brother, that Ohio would provide a security and stability the family had not known in years. All that remained was for his mother, her second husband, and Hassan’s brother and sister to join them, which refugee officials assured him would happen soon.

“When we landed at the airport, we felt we could start a new life,” said Hassan, now 27. “We were very hopeful, very grateful.”

The next day, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as U.S. president. Nineteen months later, Hassan’s mother, Fatuma Diriye, a diabetic with heart problems, and his other relatives remain in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. Although they were approved for resettlement in the United States at the same time Hassan was, their plans have been repeatedly delayed by the Trump administration’s dismantling of longstanding U.S. refugee policy. The State Department declined to comment on Diriye’s case.

A week after his inauguration, Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries and halting all refugee admissions. Since then, through procedural changes made largely out of public view, the administration has reshaped the U.S. refugee program, slashing overall admissions and all but halting entry for some of the world’s most persecuted people, including Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Somalis.

This year, with a record high 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the United States is on track to take in about 22,000 refugees, a quarter the number admitted in 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the fewest in four decades.

In interviews with Reuters, more than 20 current and former U.S. officials described how the Trump administration has abandoned policies established over decades and embraced by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. The officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, say the administration has rejected internal findings that refugees could be admitted safely and with little expense. Two senior staff members who questioned the administration’s policies were removed from their positions.

The administration has instituted opaque and complicated new security vetting procedures that have bogged down admissions and eliminated many candidates for resettlement who would previously have been accepted, many of the officials said. It has extended the strictest kind of vetting to women as well as men from 11 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. And it has reduced by nearly two-thirds the number of officials conducting refugee interviews, reassigning about 100 of 155 interviewers to handle asylum screenings for people already in the country, including those who crossed the border illegally.

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Yeganeh Torbati, Omar Mohammed