For Refugees Headed To Washington State, Travel Ban Means Waiting And Uncertainty

Jul 3, 2017

The Trump administration’s travel restrictions are causing complications for refugees and groups that resettle them in the Seattle area.

In a decision last week, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the administration to ban travelers from six mostly Muslim countries who lack close ties in the United States. 

Greg Hope, who runs the refugee resettlement office for the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, said the administration doesn't count ties to refugee agencies like his. 

"We were hoping that would be a sufficient relationship to bring people here," he said. "But it isn't."

In Hope's office, in a Seattle church, he has a list of about 100 refugees waiting for authorization to head to the Puget Sound region.

Some have gone through months or years of security and medical screenings as they wait to flee persecution in countries like Somalia, Iran, and Syria. 

On Friday morning, he received guidelines from Episcopal resettlement leaders on who is allowed to enter the country under the travel restrictions. 

He estimates about a third of the refugees who pass through his office lack the ties to close family, jobs, or colleges that allow people to bypass the ban.

Refugees, who often don't have established relationships in their destination countries, are particularly vulnerable to the restrictions approved by the Supreme Court, legal experts say. 

Hope said he may have to call to friends and family waiting for refugees to arrive and tell them the wait is extended.

"I think you just have to tell people the facts, as you know them," he said. 

Hope said many of the refugees who pass through his office are from two of the affected nations, Iran and Somalia. The ban also restricts travel from Sudan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. 

The policy is in place at least until the court rules on the legality of the travel ban. Arguments are expected in the fall. 

The Trump administration said the restrictions are for national security. Critics point out refugees already go through a vetting process that can take years. 

Hope said the policy goes against the spirit of the United States' refugee efforts. 

"People in this program aren’t brought here because they’re somehow worthy in the sense they’re going to be a success or they’re going to be an immediate benefit to the country," he said.

"They’re brought here on a total humanitarian gesture. They are people who have fled their homelands and can’t return for fear of persecution,” he said.

Washington state was the nation's fourth most common destination for refugees last year, after California, Texas, and Michigan.

In the Seattle area, most refugees came from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Iran in recent months.

The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia in February joined a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the travel restrictions. The suit, which is pending before a federal judge, argues in part that the policy impedes on the church's right to practice a tenet of its faith that involves welcoming outsiders. 

Amy Williams-Derry, an attorney with the Seattle firm Keller Rohrback LLP who is representing the ACLU and the diocese in the case, said some refugees are the only survivors in their immediate families. 

"To say that someone can't resettle in the United States because they've lost their family and they can't qualify for that reason, or that a close friend or a grandparent isn't sufficient to bring them over, really seems brutally arbitrary," she said. 

Nonetheless, that's the news Hope said he expects to deliver to some friends and relatives of refugees in the Puget Sound region. 

"We deliver a lot of bad news, so I think we're pretty used to that," he said. "Particularly about rents and life and the changing nature of their new life in the United States that sometimes might not be as originally dreamed of."