When Faysal Kalayf fled Iraq and came to the United States as a refugee 10 years ago, he dreamed his mother and brothers could one day join him on American soil. But his family has been stranded in Jordan for three years and now could face additional entry hurdles under the Trump administration.
With President Trump expected to take executive action this week to suspend refugee resettlement, Kalayf doesn’t know if he will ever see his family again.
“I do have four brothers and my mother waiting to be admitted, but I don’t think this will happen with the new president,” said Kalayf, now 42 and an American citizen.
Legal advocates for immigrants in Maine called Trump’s proposed actions unprecedented and alarming.
“It’s confirming our worst fears, actually,” said Anna Welch, head of the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law.
On Wednesday, Trump signed two directives to introduce his immigration policies, including building a border wall with Mexico and withholding federal funds to cities that do not comply with federal immigration laws. Later this week, the president is expected to impose new restrictions on refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.
A draft of that order calls for a 30-day ban on allowing any person into the United States from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia or Yemen. Refugee resettlement from all countries would be halted for four months while vetting procedures are reviewed. When the program resumes, the total number of refugees resettled in the United States would be reduced by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000.
During his campaign, Trump vowed to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and to deport millions of other people living in the country illegally.
Welch, who previously served as a refugee protection officer in Kenya, said many of her clients would have been killed if they had stayed in their home countries. Now, they are worried they will never be reunified with their relatives who still live overseas.
“It could be any day that some of the family members could literally die,” she said. “They’re horrified.”
The immediate implications of Trump’s order are still uncertain, Welch said.
“We’ve got people who have already been identified for resettlement, people who are flying in today, tomorrow, the next day,” Welch said. “What’s going to happen when they get to the airport? Are they going to be turned away? Are they going back, and what are they going back to?”
The federal government resettled more than 3,200 refugees in Maine from 2011 to 2016, according to Catholic Charities, the agency that administers local resettlements.
Spokeswoman Judy Katzel said Catholic Charities is scheduled to resettle 623 people in Maine in 2017. Most of those people originally lived in Iraq and Somalia.
“If (the president) wants to take a closer look at the vetting process, once he goes through, we’re confident that he will see or develop the same confidence in the vetting system that those who work with it have,” Katzel said.
PROCESS CAN TAKE YEARS
Applicants for refugee status must have fled their country for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports there are about 14.4 million refugees worldwide. Fewer than 1 percent are recommended for resettlement, and an even smaller fraction end up in the U.S.
Those who are approved must pass an initial vetting by the United Nations and then a screening by the U.S. State Department. The process involves both paperwork and in-person interviews through the U.N. Refugee Agency.
For most people, the wait is more than two years.
“We are very troubled,” said Susan Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. “This seems really counter to our international obligations, international treaties we’ve signed saying we will protect people in danger.”
Not included in the Trump executive orders is any action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gave legal status to people who were children when they were brought into the country by their parents without authorization. Then-President Barack Obama approved the program by an executive order, which Trump has suggested he will reverse.
Roche said dozens of people in Maine qualified under that program.
“There’s a real feeling of uncertainty and not being able to trust the law as it is,” Roche said.
The Maine People’s Alliance condemned Trump’s orders in a written statement.
“This is a betrayal of American values and an abdication of American leadership,” said organizer Mohamed Ali Ibrahim. “After the failures of the Holocaust, we as a nation said we would never again turn refugees facing death and suffering away from our shores, but we are doing just that right now to the victims escaping from Aleppo and South Sudan.”
‘NOW WE WILL BE AFRAID’
Patrick Nkambwa, a 31-year-old native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, came to Maine nine months ago. He is enrolled in English classes through Portland Adult Education, and he hopes to someday bring his wife and 2-year-old son to the United States.
Nkambwa is an asylum seeker. Different than a refugee, an asylum seeker typically arrives in the U.S. with a temporary visa and then applies for the right to stay to avoid political persecution in his or her home country.
Trump’s directives do not directly affect asylum seekers already in the United States, and Nkambwa’s home country is not on the list of nations facing a longer ban. But the young father is worried.
He said he loves the freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment, but he doesn’t want to risk deportation by angering American officials.
“Now we will be afraid,” he said. “What can we say? Will they put us back in our country?”
In Iran, Behnam Sabeti said he was prohibited from pursuing higher education because of his Baha’i faith. Seeking a better life for his two children, his family fled the country. They lived in Turkey for 15 months before they could come to the United States in 2009. Today, his daughter works as a dental hygienist and his son is working on a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Now an American citizen, Sabeti said it is hard to hear the president’s accusations about immigrants.
“Not all the people are terrorists,” he said.
At the office of the Iraqi Community Association of Maine, where Kalayf is vice president, immigrants are calling to ask how Trump’s actions will affect their legal status and their loved ones. Inspired by the Women’s March on Washington last weekend, Kalayf has considered organizing a protest march at the White House.
“It will affect a huge number of people here, not only Iraqis,” he said. “It will affect their families, relatives and friends all over the world.”
His own family is in the back of his mind. They could be killed if they return to their former home in Iraq, Kalayf said.
“They don’t know their destiny,” he said. “They are hoping to go to the United States, and they cannot go back. They are in the middle.”
Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: