Human cost of Trump's refugee policy

Students from City High and West High lead a march though downtown following the Solidarity Rally Against the Ban on the Ped Mall in Iowa City on Sunday, February 5, 2017. The event was organized in response to an executive order by President Donald Trump barring admission of refugees and entry to the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim countries. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

I see the name on my phone, and my heart sinks. I know who is calling and why.

“Hello,” I answer. “Yes, Mr. Caleb, have you heard anything about my family?”

I wish I could answer yes, but I can’t. “No,” I say. He pauses, then continues, “How long will it take for them to come?” I long to deliver good news, but have none. “No, I don’t, but I will call you as soon as I hear something.”

As a refugee case manager, these calls come with the job. But this year was different. Uncertainty and fear attained new heights with a new president and an anti-refugee platform.

Donald Trump did not merely run as an anti-refugee candidate for president. As president, his actions and policies oppose refugees more than any president in recent history. Trump’s refugee policies carry a steep human cost. Statistics mask the carnage. Lives and families hang in the balance.

One of Trump’s first actions as president? Executive action banning all refugees entering the U.S. for four months. His rationale? Preventing terrorism. His reasoning is a farce, his excuse a smoke screen. How could terrorism be the true motive when no American citizen has died from a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee since the refugee admissions program began in 1980?

By law, the president determines the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States. Last year President Barack Obama set the refugee ceiling at 110,000 refugees. That number was higher than the last several years, reflecting the growing numbers of refugees around the world. That number is not unprecedented.

In the early and late 1980s, and the early 1990s, the United States annually resettled 100,000-plus refugees per year. Today’s refugee population worldwide dwarfs refugee numbers then. This year Trump will only allow 45,000 refugees to enter the country. Since the current refugee admissions program began, the United States never has seen a refugee ceiling that low. Given the current pace of refugees entering, fewer than 19,000 will arrive in our country for the entire year.

Not even during the aftermath of 9/11 were refugee arrivals so low. Post-9/11, our government banned refugees from entire countries and enacted extensive screening measures. Yet 2002 and 2003 each saw more than 27,000 refugees arrive. Fewer refugees entering the U.S. means more refugees remain at risk around the world. Fewer refugee arrivals lengthens family separation.

Under current immigration law, during the first two years in the United States, a refugee can apply for a spouse or a child to join them. The refugee must show proof of marriage, and undergo a DNA test to verify children. Why did they not come together? Coming to the United States as a refugee can take years or even decades. If a refugee began the process, and then later married before resettling, the spouse cannot go to the United States with that refugee. War at home might separate children from their family, and parents may not discover the child’s whereabouts until after arriving.

Our immigration system should prioritize reunited families. Under Trump, the government has indefinitely suspended this program to reunite refugees with their spouse or children.

I have refugee clients and former clients who applied for their spouse or children to join them in the United States. Now it may take years to reunite these families, if they can reunite at all.

How would you feel if your spouse or children were stuck overseas and the government suspended the one program for them to join you again? Long separations put excruciating pressure on marriages and families. Some do not survive the ordeal.

During the refugee ban, the Department of Homeland Security required additional security protocols for all refugee applicants. Now all refugees have to provide a phone number and email address for every member of their extended family and in-laws, and provide a specific address for every place they have lived in the last 10 years. Remember, a refugee is a person who fled out of fear of persecution for who they are or what they believe.

How many of you know a phone number and email address for every single extended family member and in-law? How many of you can remember the address of every place you lived for the past 10 years? Not me, and I was never forced to flee my home and my country, fearing for my life.

Immigration interviews each refugee separately. If the information and stories from members of the same refugee family do not line up, the case is denied entry. Human memory, especially under duress and threat of violence, can err. I fear these “enhanced vetting procedures” will serve as a pretext to keep out as many refugees possible.

Refugee arrivals dropped precariously as a direct result of Trump’s actions and policies toward refugees. Refugee bans and onerous security measures forced resettlement agencies to lay off staff. Because of these policies and actions, in September 2017, the State Department ordered all programs resettling less than 50 refugees this year to close. Closed programs mean jobs eliminated.

In December 2017, again because of low arrivals, the State Department ordered all programs resettling less than 100 refugees this year to close. More programs are closing. More people are losing their jobs, myself included.

Candidate Trump ran as a job creator. In his refugee policy, President Trump is a job destroyer.

Beyond people losing jobs, these policies affect families — families we promised to resettle in Cedar Rapids.

I field the calls asking, “Have you heard anything about my sister? Where are my parents? How long until my uncle arrives? What about my wife?” My heart breaks as I respond, “No” and “I don’t know.”

I see the pain and the strain sunder families. Children grow up without parents. Marriages fray due to long separations. These families bear the human costs of Trump’s refugee policies.

• Caleb S. Gates has worked with refugees since 2011. Comments: