Refugees from around the world hoping to resettle in the U.S. stand to face far more restrictive admissions procedures during the next four months and possibly later on, after the Trump administration began implementing a partial travel ban Thursday evening.
In California, the state with the most refugee arrivals in the current fiscal year, resettlement agencies foresee a drop in the number of people who could qualify for entry under the new federal guidelines.
Under President Trump's executive order, refugee admissions will be suspended for 120 days, while the entry of citizens from six Muslim-majority countries will be halted for a 90-day period -- with some exceptions in both cases.
The Supreme Court decided Monday it will hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of the ban this fall, and allowed parts of the travel ban to be implemented. The justices said foreign travelers with a "bona fide relationship" to individuals or entities in the U.S. should be exempt from such restrictions.
Refugees booked to travel by July 6 should be permitted entry even without qualifying for the exemption, said senior administration officials during a recent call with reporters. They added that the U.S. has admitted just over 49,000 refugees this fiscal year -- close to the cap of 50,000 set by the Trump administration.
That cap represents a 41 percent reduction in the number of refugees resettled in U.S. communities the previous year.
"Can you imagine that if you yourself are a refugee from a country that you are fleeing from persecutions and you are not allowed to come in, what is your future?"said Sister Elisabeth Lang, who directs the refugee resettlement program at Catholic Charities of the East Bay. "It's devastating."
Lang, who was a refugee from Vietnam, has worked since 1975 to find apartments, jobs and schools for refugees arriving in Oakland.
"I hope the administration continues to open the door and welcome refugees especially, because these are people who want to come here to rebuild their lives," said Lang.
Lang and employees at other resettlement agencies initially hoped the Trump administration would consider a "bona fide relationship" as an established link between their agencies and would-be refugees. But those prospects were dashed when the federal government sent new guidelines to U.S. consulates and embassies abroad earlier this week.
To count for the exemption, relationships with entities such as a business or university in the U.S. must be formal and documented. But for refugees seeking admission, a long-standing connection with a resettlement agency is not sufficient, said senior administration officials.
As far as links to relatives, the Trump administration is taking what critics consider a narrow and quirky interpretation of the Supreme Court's decision. All refugees and travelers from the six Muslim-majority countries targeted by the ban with a parent, spouse or son or daughter in the U.S. might be exempt, according to senior administration officials. But a grandparent or aunt does not qualify as a "bona fide relationship."
Officials at the White House and the State Department insisted Trump's executive order has the purpose of keeping potential terrorists out of the country.
"He believes the United States needs to do more to enhance our screening procedures and to take a better look at people who will be coming into the United States," said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman. "Because the safety and security of Americans comes first."
As details of the travel ban's implementation continue to be released, attorneys with the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other organizations set up shop at San Francisco International Airport and other airports, offering free legal aid.
Michael Risher, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California -- one of the groups that is fighting Trump's travel ban in court -- said the administration's definitions of who can be admitted into the country seem too restrictive. His group and others will continue monitoring the rollout of the president's executive order, and any official documents released by the administration, before devising next steps.
"If people see that the administration is violating the rules set down by the Supreme Court, they will bring it to the attention of one of the judges who is already hearing one of these cases," said Risher.
The state of Hawaii filed a challenge Thursday to the administration's definition of "bona fide relationship," asking a federal judge to clarify who can be excluded from the U.S.
The attorney general of Hawaii, Douglas Chin, said in a statement that his state seeks clarification on "the controversial bans against fiances, grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins of people currently living in the United States," as reported by NPR.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up the constitutionality of the president's executive order in October.