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Refugees lacking close US ties likely out of luck in seeking to enter the country

FILE PHOTO: Syrian refugees break their fast outside their tent at a Syrian refugee camp in Marj, Lebanon. Many refugees will be unable to enter the U.S. even if they have been working with U.S. resettlement agencies under the latest travel ban.
FILE PHOTO: Syrian refugees break their fast outside their tent at a Syrian refugee camp in Marj, Lebanon. Many refugees will be unable to enter the U.S. even if they have been working with U.S. resettlement agencies under the latest travel ban.
Bilal Hussein/AP

Refugees working with U.S. resettlement agencies had hoped they would qualify for entry into the country under rules for the latest travel ban that took effect Thursday.

But on Friday, the U.S. Department of State issued guidance that the resettlement agencies do not count as a "qualifying relationship" with a U.S. entity, a connection that is required for refugees to be exempt from the ban.

The decision leaves refugees in the pipeline, who have no other close or established ties in the U.S., without a ready way to enter the country.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments this fall in the legal challenges to President Trump's travel ban, which restricts travel from six Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and stops refugee admissions for 120 days. 

The court also reinstated portions of the ban. Travelers with ties to close relatives or a U.S. entity, a university or employer, for example, can enter the country with a valid visa.

But just who and what constitutes a qualified relative or entity that can serve as an established connection is limited. The State Department's guidelines lists categories of family members who count as qualified relationships. For example, a parent qualifies but not a grandparent. The rules also exclude agencies that arrange for refugees to arrive as qualified entities:

"The fact that a resettlement agency in the United States has provided a formal assurance for a refugee seeking admission, however, is not sufficient in and of itself to establish a qualifying relationship for that refugee with an entity in the United States."

Jose Serrano with the Garden Grove office of the resettlement agency World Relief said the guidance will mean that many would-be refugees won't be allowed to enter the U.S.

"That is beyond critical, simply because any refugee who has no family in the United States cannot come in...," Serrano said. 

The State Department lists qualifying family relationships as "a parent (including parent-in-law), spouse, fiancé, fiancée, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, sibling, whether whole or half. This includes step relationships. The following relationships do not qualify: grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, and any other 'extended' family members."

Serrano said less than 50 percent of the refugees arriving have immediate family in the United Stattes, and that their U.S. ties are often family friends or more distant relatives.

The criteria do not kick in immediately. According to a State Department fact sheet, "refugees already scheduled for travel through July 6 will be permitted to travel" regardless of whether they have a qualifying relationship.​

A relationship with a U.S. entity that is "formal" and "documented" will also be considered, according to the State Department. But there were no details on how that is defined. 

A State Department spokesperson wrote in an email that relationship claims will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

According to State Department officials, the 120-day suspension of all refugee admissions, regardless of their originating country, began when the travel ban took effect Thursday. 

Those in transit will continue to arrive through July 6, which is around the time a cap of 50,000 refugee admissions for this year set by the Trump administration is expected to be reached. 

The new rules will most deeply affect refugees who are in the resettlement process but have not yet received clearance to come to the United States, said Martin Zogg, executive director of the local office of the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency.

"Those most affected are those who are not qualified as in-transit, that is, they have not received a travel date, but are nevertheless awaiting travel authorization," Zogg said.

He said his resettlement agency is working with about 100 Iranian refugees who are in transit and likely to be stuck in Austria. Austria serves as a halfway point for Iranian refugees bound for the United States under a program that benefits religious minorities from Iran.

Under the program, the refugees transit from Iran to Austria, where they are interviewed and vetted by U.S. officials because the U.S. has no embassy in Iran.

Among these refugees waiting in Austria is Burbank resident Hermik Sayad's aunt and her family. The Armenian Christian family made it from Iran to Austria last fall and have already been interviewed by U.S. Embassy officials, said Sayad. But they haven't been cleared to travel yet.

"I don't know what is going to happen to them, because they cannot go back," Sayad said. "There is no way to go back." They are draining their savings in Vienna as they wait, she said. 

They are lucky in one sense: the mother of Sayad's aunt — Sayad's grandmother — lives in the United States, which means they have an immediate family tie to cite for entry.

But she said there's no telling when they'll be allowed to travel.