Federal officials expect the national cap on refugee admissions for fiscal year 2017 to be reached Wednesday, ushering in the Trump administration's temporary travel ban affecting refugees.
Once that happens, all refugees will have to prove they have close relatives in the United States or established ties such as a job before they can gain entry. The new rules will remain in effect for at least 120 days, starting from late June when the U.S Supreme Court ordered the partial reinstatement of the Trump travel policy.
The court will hear full arguments in legal challenges to the travel ban in the fall.
The new rules will leave many refugees who have been waiting in the pipeline out in the cold, said Paul Castro, president and CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. The Koreatown-based agency resettled about 110 refugees locally last year.
"The ones who don't [have close relatives] are going to end up being just kind of either stuck where they're at, or they may just wind up going to some other country, or doing something else — it is hard to tell," Castro said.
New limits on refugee admissions worry a refugee couple in Pasadena. Abraham, a Syrian, and his wife, Ayda, met in his home country in 2006 after she fled from Iraq. They have been waiting for his brother, who fled Syria to Lebanon four years ago and has been trying to get to the U.S. ever since.
"I fear he's stuck over there," said Abraham, a Syrian Christian who arrived in 2009. Abraham doesn't want to use his last name or his wife's because he is afraid of hurting his brother's case.
The couple said Abraham's brother completed his interviews with U.S. embassy officials late last year and passed his physical exams. He was only waiting for clearance to travel to the U.S., along with his wife and young child.
Ayda said the process has dragged on, and they do not know when when the family will get on a flight, only that it won't be this week.
She said her brother-in-law, also a Christian, was badly hurt before he left Syria; he was shot in the arm where he had a tattoo of a cross, Ayda said.
"They are scared to [go] back [to Syria], and in Lebanon there is no work and no life. They can't work there. Their dream is to come here and start their life," Ayda said.
Under the new travel ban rules, Abraham’s brother should get in eventually. He has a sibling here, which counts as a qualifying, bona fide relationship under the entry requirements.
The State Department posted guidance listing the accepted categories of relatives: "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."
A department spokeswoman told KPCC by email that refugees scheduled to travel to the U.S. will be allowed in until the end of Wednesday. Then, "beginning July 13, only those individuals who have a credible claim to a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States will be eligible for admission through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program."
A relationship with a U.S. entity, such as a university or employer, can also qualify a refugee for entry on a case-by-case basis. However, the spokeswoman said refugees are not likely to have such ties and are more likely to have connections to relatives.
The State Department made clear that a relationship with a U.S. resettlement agency does not count as a qualifying relationship.
The agency that Castro directs settles many Iranian Jews who travel to the U.S. via Austria, arriving through a refugee program that benefits religious minorities. He said one of his agency's refugee clients has been waiting in Austria. She is being vetted by U.S. officials but likely will be stuck in Austria because she has no close relatives in this country.
Resettlement agencies say they have yet to receive guidance from the federal government about what happens once the 120 days of the temporary refugee travel ban are up.
"I suspect that what will happen is there will be a push to make this more permanent in some form," Castro said. "I can't imagine going back to the status quo prior to the order."