CAIRO — President Trump’s executive order to tighten the vetting of potential immigrants and visitors to the United States, as well as to ban some refugees seeking to resettle in the country, will shatter countless dreams and divide families, would-be immigrants and human rights activists warned.
The draft order calls for an immediate halt to resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, rejecting visas for visitors and immigrant hopefuls based partly on their ideology and opinions. A copy of the draft order was leaked Wednesday to civil rights groups and obtained by The Washington Post.
“I feel devastated,” said Ibrahim Abu Ghanem, 37, a father of three in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, whose father and two brothers live in the United States. “This means all my plans are going to go down the drain.”
If the order is enacted, among those immediately affected would be potential immigrants and visitors from seven Muslim countries — Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Iran, Libya and Sudan — that are considered by the Trump administration to be nations whose citizens “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” For the next 30 days, they will not be allowed entry into the United States, even if they have visas and relatives who are U.S. citizens.
The order also calls for halting all admissions and resettlement of refugees for 120 days pending the review of vetting procedures. For Syrian refugees, the ban will remain in place until further notice.
Once restarted, annual refugee admissions from all nations would be halved, from a current level of 100,000 to 50,000.
For those affected, the fear is that the order will be a harbinger of even greater restrictions for Muslim immigrants, refugees and visitors — fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises of “extreme vetting” of foreigners seeking entry into the United States and installing “a Muslim ban.” Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Iran are among the leading countries of origin of recent refugees to the United States.
“It’s going to be devastating,” said Denise Bell, senior campaigner for refugee and migrant rights for watchdog group Amnesty International. “Refugees are not a threat. They are the ones fleeing horrific violence. They are trying to rebuild their lives. They want the same safety and opportunities that any of us would want.”
“And so we are scapegoating them in the guise of national security,” she said. “Instead, we are betraying our own values. We are violating international law.”
As news of the impending order spread, lives were quickly affected across the world, particularly among the citizens of the countries immediately targeted. For them, it is already difficult to get visas or immigrate to the United States. Vetting has been stringent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, rights activists say. Even so, many potential Muslim immigrants went through long screening processes, often lasting years, to gain entry to the United States. Now, many find themselves in an emotional and bureaucratic limbo.
In Sanaa, Ghanem had been making plans to travel with his family to Cairo to apply for visas at the U.S. Embassy in the Egyptian capital. His mother and younger brother are also in Yemen. He wanted to reunite his family.
“My wife and I have spent countless nights dreaming of a better future for us and especially our children,” said Ghanem, a former administrator at a center for battling cancer. “We were hoping for a better life, better opportunities and good education for our children.”
The shock for Syrian refugees already in the United States cut deepest for those awaiting the arrival of loved ones.
For Eman, a widow in Chicago who asked that her surname be withheld out of concern for relatives back home, that means her son. They fled the western Syrian city of Homs in 2012, fearing he would be conscripted into President Bashar al-Assad’s military. Months after her arrival in America, Eman had expected her eldest son to arrive in short order, once paperwork for his new marriage was approved.
“It seemed like everything was fine, and he was finally going to join me here. Now they tell me it might be impossible because of the president’s new decree,” she said. “I’m so scared. I came to America because I thought it would be best for my family.”
Syria’s bitter war has created the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have absorbed more than 4 million displaced Syrians, spread across camps or living on meager resources in cramped apartments.
In comparison, the United States accepted fewer than 13,000 Syrian immigrants last year, a figure that rose only in the final months after tight vetting procedures initially stemmed the monthly flow to the low hundreds.
“We have to remember these people are escaping the very same terrorism that Trump says he’s banning them for,” said Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder of the Syrian Community Network, a grass-roots initiative that has stepped in to fill the linguistic and cultural gaps that larger relief agencies are unable to address.
Refugee advocates say the resettlement of Syrians presents challenges unusual in the United States, even among new refugees. Doctors in Chicago discovered some Syrians still carried shrapnel in their bodies. Less visible but more pervasive is the trauma. Many have been tortured or lived amid constant bombardment.
In Iraq, where Iraqi military personnel are fighting against the Islamic State alongside U.S. Special Operations forces, the visa ban was considered an insult.
“They trained me to fight terrorism, and they look at me as a terrorist?” said one F-16 pilot who trained in the United States for five years. He declined to be named because he did not have his superiors’ permission to speak to reporters. “It's true that they have the right to protect their country, but that doesn't mean they should treat us like we are germs.”
He said he has no desire to live in the United States, but that he would like to visit again and “relax” after “fighting terrorism on their behalf.”
“If they really do ban us, it means we are of no value to them,” he continued. “They are just using us.”
Ammar Karim, 37, an Iraqi correspondent with Agence France-Presse, is in the final steps of a program to resettle in the United States. He applied four years ago, and his sponsor in Seattle was recently told to prepare for his arrival. Karim was one of the first interpreters to work with U.S. Marines in Baghdad following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He has also worked for large American news organizations, making him a target of militants.
On Thursday, Karim did not hide his disappointment and anger. “Now, because of this new decision, I feel there is no hope that I will move to the U.S. “I will have to stay in this country that is still not at peace. The people who will be affected by this ban are those who did the best for America in Iraq. They sacrificed their lives.”
He added: “It’s not fair. This president doesn’t understand our situation. The U.S. is abandoning the people who stood behind them.”
For Iran and Iranian Americans, the new restrictions are expected to hit particularly hard. Of the roughly 1 million Iranian Americans living in the United States, the vast majority have family members in Iran. Those relatives, who fall under the new executive order banning citizens from certain countries, would be prohibited from visiting loved ones in the United States. Students, artists, filmmakers and even Europeans who also hold Iranian passports could be denied entry.
Under the executive order, governments are required to provide U.S. agencies with information confirming that any applicants are not a security threat. But because the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic ties — and have a history of tense relations — Iranian officials are unlikely to comply.
Even if they did, “we are skeptical … the Trump administration would accept such efforts,” NIAC Action, the sister organization of the National Iranian American Council, said in a statement Wednesday. “This would, in effect, mean a permanent ban on entry for Iranians,” the advocacy group said, adding that even Iranian green-card holders currently outside the United States could be barred from reentry.
In the world’s largest refugee camp, called Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, news of Trump’s impending announcement spread quickly.
“You could see the sadness on people’s faces,” said Mohammed Rashid, an English teacher who has been waiting for five years for his asylum case to be approved.
Between 2001 and 2015, the United States admitted more than 90,000 Somali refugees, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Many of them came from Dadaab, where generations of Somalis first fled civil war and then fled Islamic extremist groups, often applying for asylum in the United States after arriving at the camp.
Rashid fled Somalia for Dadaab in 1992 to save his family from the country’s civil war. “We thought our children would have better lives in the U.S.,” said Rashid. “Now, with Trump, we are disappointed. There is nowhere else for us to go.”In Sudan, some were surprised to see their country on the list of affected countries. Earlier this month, the Obama administration relaxed long-standing sanctions on the country, and it appeared that relations between the nations were warming. As part of the agreement to lift sanctions, Sudanese officials pledged to increase cooperation on combating terrorism. Ghanem said he believes that the attitude toward Muslim immigrants and visitors will only worsen in the United States and that he is afraid his family will never be reunited.
Rashid sat for an interview with American resettlement officials in Kenya in 2015. His fingerprints were taken, but while waiting for his asylum to be approved, he and his wife had a third child, which he said delayed their approval.
After the election, he started following several Trump-related accounts on Twitter to keep abreast of American news. His brother was resettled in Seattle several years earlier, and Rashid already felt an attachment to the United States. In November, when a Somali-born student at Ohio State University injured 11 people in an attack, Rashid read Trump’s tweet that the attacker was a “Somali refugee who should not have been in our country.”
On Wednesday, Rashid saw a tweet that said Somali refugees would be banned from the United States. He said he tried not to cry. “The refugees are people who ran away; they are victims,” he said. “I don’t know why we are being targeted.”
In 2001, the United States accepted more than 4,000 “Lost Boys” from Sudan, whose families were killed or vanished during the country’s civil war. Their stories were broadcast in dozens of books, movies and television reports. Some of them went on to careers as professional athletes, diplomats and renowned writers.
The United States later resettled a large number of refugees fleeing conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, where 3.3 million people are still in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
Some Sudanese refugees in Cairo have spent years in Egypt seeking resettlement to the United States and Europe. Now, there is even less hope.
“I have been trying for four years, but all is in vain,” said Maher Ismail, 23, a university student. “Our conditions here are dire. It is very difficult to get anywhere, the U.S. or any other place. I have applied for a lottery visa three months ago anyway, but I know how this is going to end up.”
“This decision has really destroyed our dreams,” he said. “I don't know what I will say to my mother or how I would break the news for her.”
Loveluck reported from Beirut and Sieff from Nairobi. Ali Al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen; Heba Mahfouz in Cairo; Mustafa Salim in Baghdad; Loveday Morris in Jerusalem; Erin Cunningham in Turkey; and Heba Habib in Stockholm contributed to this report.