Trump’s Latest Attack on Refugees: Closure of Overseas Immigration Offices

By Curt Goering, CVT executive director

Curt Goering, CVT executive director

When we hear or read statistics about the 68 million people fleeing violence and persecution worldwide, our minds may immediately jump to the Syrian and South Sudanese civil wars, the Iraqi conflict, war and terror in Afghanistan or the thousands fleeing violence in the Horn of Africa. In the news, we’ve seen images of some of the thousands who took to the seas to find safety, and we’re well aware of those who died trying to make it across the Mediterranean Sea in boats. Recently, however, the International Organization for Migration reported that deaths via Mediterranean crossings have been eclipsed. Now the deadliest route among displaced populations is from Latin America to our own southern border.

Contrary to what the Trump administration purports, this is the actual crisis at the U.S. border, and it is only compounded by policies that further traumatize torture survivors, such as forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico as their cases are processed, risking both the safety and emotional wellbeing of individuals already facing dire circumstances. In another egregious move just weeks ago, the Trump administration announced the closure of 23 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices. The administration alleges that the office closures will allow them to better focus on the enormous backlog in the U.S. asylum system, but our colleagues at Human Rights First note that it will instead cause irreparable damages to the U.S. immigration system.

Closures of the International Division of USCIS will make it far more difficult for people to access the U.S. asylum and refugee system. Through these offices, asylees are able to petition their immediate relatives who are still facing danger in their home countries; thus closure will likely either delay or prevent reunification. Closures will likely also put stress on the Refugee Affairs Division (RAD) within USCIS. Officers from this division travel the world to interview refugees for potential resettlement to the United States. Their job is to assess the reliability of a refugee’s backstory, to gauge credibility in a way that can only be done face-to-face. Since 2017, U.S. refugee admissions have decreased by 75 percent. We’re midway through the 2019 fiscal year and the U.S. has admitted only 12,151 refugees, and due to clogs in the system set by the administration, the levels won’t even come close to hitting its admissions ceiling. Imposing more stress on a system that is already clogged limits the opportunity of refugees overseas to qualify for resettlement at a time when the U.S. refugee admissions levels have reached a historic low.

Furthermore, with the closures, U.S. refugee families will experience greater difficulty in reuniting with loved ones. Many of CVT’s torture survivor clients left their families behind after fleeing their homes to save their lives. An asylum seeker in her 40s, Mary* has six children, and was forced to leave all of them behind in her home country in Africa. She asked her therapist, “What is my life for, here without my kids?” Another CVT client named Adam* said, “I have had suicidal thoughts at times, living a life without my family, not knowing how long that will be.” Waiting on the long and drawn-out U.S. asylum process makes waiting to see their families again all the more grueling. With the closures of the USCIS offices, Mary and Adam will likely be waiting a very long time.

Closing overseas immigration offices neglects the underlying reasons thousands are currently seeking safety at the southern border and establishes hierarchies and priorities among survivors in desperate need. It sabotages the very system it’s intended to protect, and further complicates the plight of refugees, asylum seekers and their families. The United States should be a global frontrunner in providing safe haven to victims of the worst refugee crisis on record, not designing policies to discourage people in danger from seeking refuge. The closures are unnecessary, uncalled for, illogical and wrong. It is imperative that Congress intervene to prohibit them. The lives of so many depend on it.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality and security purposes