When we made the decision in February 2017 to welcome K. into our life, we were prepared for many obstacles to come our way: Fostering a refugee child comes with a lot of bureaucracy, intensive vetting and training to become approved as foster parents, and the emotional roller coaster of opening our home and our hearts to this child. The one obstacle we didn’t expect has turned out to be the most significant factor in keeping our family apart: President Trump’s refugee ban.
In late May, we were thrilled to hear from Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services about the identity of our future son that we had been dreaming about. K. was only 14 years old when he fled Eritrea to escape being conscripted to the military indefinitely. He is now 16 years old and living in a refugee camp in Egypt by himself. He is too afraid to walk around alone, so most of his time is spent inside his tiny refugee-assigned housing. As parents of two young boys, the thought of that daily reality is beyond unsettling. We were hoping to care for K. and offer him a sense of stability and a loving, nurturing support system he has been missing since he had to leave his family behind in Eritrea.
The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Trump’s executive order, forbidding all refugee resettlement in the United States, put an abrupt stop to our dreams. The news that our son’s travel may be delayed indefinitely has been devastating. We promised to care for this child, and all of a sudden we were no longer allowed to keep that promise. And, most importantly — after all that K. has been through, he does not deserve this.
On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear arguments in Seattle in the continuing litigation over the executive order, in a case that could finally allow K. to come join us.
Last year, according to the U.S. Government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, about 200 children arrived in the United States as part of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program, which allows underage children without legal guardians to be resettled here and live with foster parents. Under the current version of Trump’s refugee ban, these orphaned refugee children, including our son, are denied entry to the United States even if, like our son, they come from countries outside of Trump’s blanket travel ban.
Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are the lead refugee resettlement agencies that help the refugee minor program identify children in need of resettlement and facilitate their placement with foster families such as ours across the country. There are currently about 40 other families in our situation, who are also waiting for their foster child to receive travel authorization into the United States.
Under the current implementation of the refugee ban, refugees who can prove they have “bona fide relationships” to the United States are exempted from the ban. Unfortunately, as foster parents, we are not considered part of a “bona fide” relationship, and neither are the agencies that facilitated our connection to K. That is despite the fact that the agency has provided a formal “assurance” guaranteeing resettlement assistance to our son and signaling that he had reached the very last stages of the resettlement process.
It is very hard for us to grasp why a university or an employer should count as a bona fide relationship, but we don’t. For the last six months, we have been reorganizing our lives to ready ourselves for K.’s arrival. He has a fully furnished room with books and clothes, and a reserved place at our local high school. Most importantly, he has us, our family, waiting to welcome him into our lives and offer peace and safety.
Now the courts will make a determination whether a resettlement agency qualifies as a “bona fide” relationship with a refugee. Our foster son has been offered an assurance by Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services that we will sponsor him. To not honor this commitment is cruel and unjust. We believe that the Ninth Circuit will see this assurance as the bona fide relationship necessary to continue with the commitment that has been extended to K. and other refugee youth and their sponsor families.
We have been following the legal ping-pong around the travel ban for months, but we still don’t understand why the government is trying so hard to keep K. away from us. This policy has been designed, as many of the actions coming out of the Trump presidency, to villainize incredibly vulnerable populations. Over and over, Trump has attempted to convince U.S. citizens that refugees should be feared — however, as is typical of our president, there is simply no data to support this. This month, yet another court will have to make a decision directly affecting our family’s future. We are hoping for the best, but now sadly are always prepared for the worst.
What brings us joy is that mid-August we have welcomed another refugee child, our son Tesfalem, into our home and family. Tesfalem was fortunate to have arrived in the United States in February while the travel ban was still blocked. The experience has been everything we have hoped it to be, except that we wish that his brother could be with us also. Our family’s grief has been unexpected and deep. I did not imagine my children would have to experience these circumstances and emotions at their tender ages.
Now every time we get a call from the resettlement agency, our hearts skip a beat because we hope it is the call we have been waiting for for so long. In the meantime, K’s room remains empty — but our kids are drawing “Welcome Home” signs, just in case.