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FAQ: Why US refugee entries have all but stopped

FILE: Jordanian soldiers help newly arrived Syrian refugees after hundreds fleeing the violence in their home country. Refugee admissions to the U.S. have slowed under the Trump administration to a trickle.
FILE: Jordanian soldiers help newly arrived Syrian refugees after hundreds fleeing the violence in their home country. Refugee admissions to the U.S. have slowed under the Trump administration to a trickle.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

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The Trump administration has denied entry to a group of Iranian refugees seeking to escape religious persecution and relocate to the United States, prompting a lawsuit filed this week in federal court. 

The denials are part of a dramatic slowdown in refugee admissions over the past year.

Since taking office, President Trump has called for new restrictions on refugee entries and singled out refugees from selected nations — many Muslim-majority countries —  for additional scrutiny, all starting with his first travel ban in early 2017. 

In one of the latest developments, about 90 Iranian refugees and some of their family members in the U.S. filed their suit after waiting for entry for more than a year in Austria.

The plaintiffs were in that country as part of the Lautenberg-Specter Program, one for religious minorities who face discrimination and persecution in their home countries.

Refugees received initial approval for U.S. entry in Iran, where there is no American embassy, to travel to Vienna and complete their paperwork with U.S. officials before being cleared for admission.

“By February of this year, there were about 100 refugee applicants in Vienna who had been waiting there for about a year," said Mariko Hirose, litigation director for the International Refugee Assistance Project representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "And all of a sudden, about 80 of them received denials – mass denials — that said nothing more than they are being denied as a matter of discretion.”

Hirose said the plaintiffs are running out of money in Austria, where they cannot work legally, and are in danger of being deported back to Iran. She said hundreds more who were in the program never made it to Austria and remain in Iran. The Austrian government canceled transit visas for many Iranian refugees in response to the president's January 2017 travel ban.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, among the agencies named as defendants in the lawsuit, said the agency could not comment on the pending litigation.

Here's what you need to know about the status of refugee entries: 

Q: What has slowed the flow of refugees into the U.S.?

A combination of things, beginning with President Trump's travel ban, which initially singled out travelers and immigrants from six predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran.

After legal challenges, the nation list was 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 set to hear legal arguments on the legality of the travel ban this month.  

While the revised travel ban did not apply to refugees, the Trump administration has made several other cutbacks and restrictions. Refugee admissions were suspended for 120 days last year, although a court order exempted those who could prove they had a "bona fide" U.S. tie, such as a close relative.

Then in September, President Trump capped refugee admissions at 45,000 for the 2018 fiscal year, the lowest refugee quota in decades. 

When officials lifted the 120-day suspension last October, they also announced that refugees 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." 

Q: How many refugees have been admitted into the country since Trump took office?

Halfway through the 2018 fiscal year, 10,548 refugees have been admitted to the United States, according to U.S. State Department data. That's less than a fourth of the refugees that the Trump Administration said could enter the country for the year.

During the last full year of the Obama administration, there were 84,994 refugee arrivals.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman recently told KPCC via email that it was still too soon to know how many refugees would arrive by the end of the 2018 fiscal year, Sept. 30.

She said additional screening could account for the slowdown in admissions, along with medical checks and the "operational capacity" of federal agencies. 

Q: How have Southern California refugee service agencies been affected? 

The lack of refugees arriving locally has led some local agencies to shutter their refugee resettlement operations. One of these is Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, whose caseload consisted heavily of Lautenberg refugees from Iran.

“We found ourselves not only with people stuck in Vienna, but actually with hundreds of people still in Iran who couldn’t get to Vienna," said Margaret Avineri, the agency's senior director of integrated clinical and community services. "And, as you know, that pipeline has completely dried up."

Last December, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles announced that it would suspend its refugee resettlement services for the time being.

In Orange County, World Relief has shifted its focus to immigration legal services, such as assisting refugee families that are here obtain their green cards. Jose Serrano of World Relief said the agency's Garden Grove-based office has also suspended its resettlement efforts.

"Our last refugee was resettled June of 2017," Serrano said.