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Refugee admissions to US have plummeted. Here's what that looks like in SoCal

A Syrian refugee child eats food which her mother collected from rubbish in the Eminonu district of Istanbul.
A Syrian refugee child eats food which her mother collected from rubbish in the Eminonu district of Istanbul.
Bulent Kilic /AFP/Getty Images

Refugee admissions have slowed to a crawl since President Trump took office, a change that's particularly evident in Southern California, according to an analysis of federal data by the Associated Press.

Glendale is a telling example. The city has long been a destination for refugees from Iran, particularly Christians of Armenian background. According to the AP analysis, more than 1,200 refugees from Iran were resettled in Glendale in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2016. The number fell to just over 700 in fiscal year 2017, which ended last Sept. 30 and covered the last nearly four months of the Obama administration and more than eight months of the Trump administration.

In the nearly six months from the start of the 2018 fiscal year through mid-March, the drop-off was steep: Only 10 refugees from Iran were resettled in Glendale.

Throughout California, refugee admissions this fiscal year so far are a fraction of what they were a year ago: Between last Oct. 1 and March 15, there were 587 refugees resettled in California; 3,707 were resettled during the same period a year ago. More than 5,000 refugees were resettled in California in all of fiscal year 2017.

"In the last two months, we have resettled three people each month," said Martin Zogg, executive director of the Glendale-based Los Angeles regional office of the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency that works closely with refugees from Iran. "You can see just a dramatic decline in the number of refugees we've resettled."

Zogg said many refugees who arrive in the Los Angeles area come through what's called the Lautenberg program, which benefits religious minorities. Initially set up in 1990 to assist refugees from the former Soviet Union, the program now mostly benefits Christian, Jewish, Baha’i and other religious minority refugees from Iran. 

Under the Lautenberg program, these refugees transit from Iran to Austria, where they complete their paperwork before continuing to the United States, which has no embassy in Iran. The Trump administration's initial travel restrictions in early 2017, which singled out Iranian travelers along with those from six other Muslim-majority countries, prompted Austria to stop issuing the Iranian refugees transit visas - and left many would-be refugees stuck.

"The program itself has ground to a halt," Zogg said, "and as a result, refugee resettlement in Los Angeles has effectively halted."  

Zogg said that locally, his agency resettled about 1,000 refugees in total in fiscal year 2016 and close to 750 in fiscal year 2017, mostly before President Trump’s January 2017 inauguration. Since last Oct. 1, the International Rescue Committee's local office has resettled only about 60 refugees, he said.

Other groups resettled in Glendale have also dwindled, among them Iraqis, Syrians and Somalis, according to the AP analysis. And the decline is being seen throughout Southern California.

In the city of Los Angeles, only 20 refugees from various countries have been resettled since last Oct. 1, according to the AP data, compared with 367 in fiscal year 2017 and 534 in fiscal year 2016. 

San Diego, a hub for refugees arriving from countries like Iraq, Syria and Somalia, has seen a dramatic slowdown as well. Only four Iraqi refugees and two Syrians have been resettled there since Oct. 1 compared with 508 and 287, respectively, the previous fiscal year. Somalis resettled in San Diego have dropped from 135 in fiscal year 2017 to zero so far this year, according to the AP analysis.

All three countries were on Trump's initial travel ban list last year, although Iraq was eventually dropped. After legal challenges, the list was eventually modified to include travelers from two non-Muslim countries, including North Korea and a limited number of Venezuelan government officials. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear legal arguments on the legality of the travel ban next month.  

The revised travel ban did not apply to refugees. However, the administration announced in October when it lifted its 120-day suspension on refugees that those from 11 countries — which officials declined to name — would be subject to additional restrictions during a 90-day review period and that their cases would be reviewed on a "case-by-case basis." 

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman told KPCC via email that it's still too soon to know how many refugees will arrive by the end of the fiscal year, which is Sept. 30, and that additional security screening could account for the slowdown, along with medical checks and the "operational capacity" of federal agencies.

"Processing time may be slower as we implement additional security vetting procedures," she wrote. "The timeframe for each refugee’s case is different."

The administration announced the added screening procedures last October, when it lifted a four-month ban on refugees who lacked close family ties in the U.S.

Meanwhile, some local refugee agencies have shuttered their resettlement efforts due to the slowdown. Late last year, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles announced it was suspending its refugee resettlement program. For decades, the agency helped resettle refugees from places like Iran, Afghanistan, and the former Soviet Union.

In Orange County, which has been a destination for refugees from places like Syria and Iraq, the Garden Grove office of World Relief has also suspended resettlement efforts for now. 

"Our last refugee was resettled June of 2017 - that was last year," said Serrano, who said the vetting process for refugees was already stringent and could take several years, long before the Trump administration.

"The vetting process is a process that takes quite a while," Serrano said. "Families are not just being dropped off ... at LAX. That's not how it happens." 

Serrano said the Garden Grove office of World Relief has refocused lately on immigrant integration services, such as assisting refugee families with legal residency and citizenship applications.

"Orange County is one of the impacted communities for refugees, so a lot of families continue to come to our office for services," he said, "because after a year they are eligible for green cards."

But there are no refugees in the pipeline, Serrano said; what few local cases World Relief had left were transferred to agencies that are still taking them.

Nationally, there were 84,994 refugee arrivals in fiscal year 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration, according to State Department data. President Trump sought to impose much more restrictive policies after taking office in Jan. 2017; even so, 53,716 refugees arrived last fiscal year.

Last fall, the Trump administration lowered the annual ceiling for refugee admissions to 45,000, the lowest cap since presidents began setting a yearly ceiling in 1980. Still, admissions are on pace to fall well short of that number: From the start of the current fiscal year through mid-March, a span of nearly six months, the U.S. only admitted 9,616 refugees.

This story has been updated.