How Trump’s Order Ended Decades of American Openness to Refugees

I spoke with the man who helped resettle refugee families like mine to learn why the president’s new restrictions on Muslims entering the U.S. is such a major departure from the past.

Syrian refugee Dania poses for a portrait at her Sacramento, California apartment in 2015.  (Max Whittaker / Reuters)

In 1989, my family and I were living in a small shared apartment in Santa Marinella, Italy, just northwest of Rome, waiting to find out if the United States would accept our application for asylum. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. accepted about half a million Soviet Jews like us as refugees, considering us a persecuted minority group in the atheist and anti-Semitic USSR.

Italy was a way-station of sorts, a place where the Russians had to prove to American Immigration and Naturalization officers that we really were Jewish—and that we really were persecuted. It was an anxious time: My father has told me stories of men donning kippahs and women procuring Star-of-David necklaces in an attempt to prove their bona-fides. (Of course, most Russian Jews knew little about these accoutrements, since organized religion had long been eradicated in the Soviet Union.) But it was also a moment of great possibility. After a few months, the vast majority of us were cleared to go on to new lives in America.

Last week, Donald Trump doubled down on the concept of religious and ethnic screening for refugees, carving out an exemption to his refugee ban for Christians. What’s different in this case is that, unlike with the Jews in the Soviet Union, the persecution in Syria is not specific to a small ethnic or religious group. Because most Syrians are Muslim, it’s primarily Muslims who are suffering in the Syrian civil war. And with the executive order, the Trump administration has eliminated their hope of reaching American shores—for people from seven majority-Muslim countries, for several months, and for Syrians, indefinitely.

To get more context on how American refugee policy has historically worked, and why Trump’s is such a major change, I called Mark Hetfield, the director of HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization. HIAS was formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and it was one of the main groups that helped resettle Soviet Jews in the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s. Hetfield himself was one of the people stationed in Rome to process families like mine, though we don’t know whether he interacted with us specifically.

Until Friday, HIAS was one of nine agencies helping resettle the 85,000 refugees of all religious and ethnic backgrounds that enter the United States each year. Now, all of their work has ground to a halt. They have been calling families who thought they would soon be Americans and telling them they instead have to return to their war-torn homelands.

The policy had actually made it harder for Christians from the Middle East to resettle in America, Hetfield said in our interview. And he believes it’s diminished America from being a stellar example of refugee resettlement to a disgraceful one. An edited transcript follows.

Olga Khazan: What have you guys been doing, and how have the past 48 hours changed things?

Mark Hetfield: Our job is to get refugees at the airport, put them into an apartment, get the apartments furnished, get the kids in school, try get the parents a job, make them self-sufficient within 180 days, get the family to learn English and get them on the road to being an American citizen.

This has been in many ways the worst three days of my life, and in many ways the best. HIAS has had to undergo a lot of transformations, but this has been the most revolutionary. We have been a partner with the U.S. government for 37 years. It’s truly a partnership, we've gotten a lot of funding from them. As of Friday, the U.S. government became the enemy. We are now fighting for our life, we're fighting them. We’re fighting because we think what they did was totally un-American. We had to change from being part of the establishment to being part of the insurgence. The reason it's been a good experience is that we have our entire community behind us. We set a fundraising record today.

We’re also putting out fires. Luckily there were no refugees arriving this weekend, but there were other people who qualify as refugee-like. Yesterday there was a case where a man in Connecticut from Syria, who fled Syria three years ago for Jordan and two years ago he applied and got asylum in the U.S., but he was separated from his wife and daughters. He filed for asylum for her, the petition was granted, and after two years of separation, she had all her paperwork and approvals, got vetted. She got a plane ticket to come to the U.S. with their five- and eight-year-old daughters. They got on a plane, they were flying from Amman to JFK via Kiev. They got off at Kiev and the airline wouldn’t let them board. They were sent back to Jordan, where they had no home. They had to find a place to live, crash with another refugee family, the father is absolutely despondent, as are they. They keep asking us what they can do. I said, there's nothing you can do legally because you haven't touched the United States. Donald Trump just pulled the rug out from under them. There are dozens or hundreds of cases like that already. There will be thousands.

Khazan: Has it always been the case that people who are religious minorities take precedence in the refugee process?

Hetfield: No, definitely not. It’s race, religion, nationality, social group, political opinion. There’s always been a strong interest in protecting religious minorities, but by no means is it a preference.

Khazan: So what are some other cases of people who weren't religious minorities who were prioritized?

Hetfield: Meskhetian Turks, they were resettled out of southern Russia a few years ago. The Bhutanese in Nepal would be another example. The Baku Armenians from the former Soviet Union, Iraqis who worked with us in the conflict. Of course, oftentimes ethnic minorities are also religious minorities. Like with the Royhinga from Burma who are Muslim, the Jews in the Soviet Union were not a religion but were a nationality. So oftentimes that coincides. It really depends on resettlement needs.

Khazan: So in Syria, since almost everyone's Muslim, what has been the bar that you have to meet to get out of Syria and into the U.S.?

Hetfield: The ones that have come to the U.S. have already been living in places like Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees make the determination that you are a refugee, that you can’t safely go back to Syria because of who you are and what you believe what political opinion you have. Then they decide if you’re safe staying in Jordan or whatever your country of first asylum is, or if you really need resettlement because you don't have a future where you are. Then they refer you to a country of resettlement, one of which is the United States.

Khazan: But there are so many people, and it seems like none of them have a future in, what, a refugee camp in Jordan? How do they even decide among that huge mass of people?

Hetfield: With regard to Iraqis, a large percentage were religious minorities, especially Christians. Many Syrians have been resistant to resettlement because they so badly want to go back one day. The UNHCR had to be very selective, because of the extreme vetting criteria that's already in place in the United States, they can’t refer anyone who raises any type of flag. If you have any association with any rebel group, whether it’s a pro-American group or not, that raises flags of potential terrorism. They have to weed out people who were political activists, people who have any flags who could screw up their security clearance process. They might be ascertained to have a security issue that could slow down the process. These aren’t real security issues, these are just yellow flags, things that require further scrutiny. That's why the population of Syrians that I’ve seen resettled here are craftspeople and semiskilled laborers, because they’re the ones who are able to get through the vetting process.

Khazan: How is this new refugee policy different from the one we had in the past? Do we typically take in a significant percentage of people from major global conflicts?

Hetfield: We resettle more people than any other country, but in proportion to our population, it’s not a significant number. Proportionally, Canada resettles more people than we do, Sweden does, Australia does. We’re not quite carrying the entire burden the way that some people say we are. We're a big, wealthy country.

The most important thing is the way we take refugees — when refugees go to most countries, they're given some kind of temporary asylum, they are expected to go home at some point. But when they come to the United States, we welcome them as new Americans. We put them on a road to citizenship and let them know they are not the other, they're one of us. We don’t view them as guests or trespassers. That’s one of the most important things we do, in terms of the example that we set. And that was ended on Friday.

[Trump] killed the refugee program in many different ways, like he was afraid it would come back from death. First, no refugees can come over for four months, unless they qualify for some undefined humanitarian exemption, which requires both the Secretary of State and Homeland Security to sign off on. Then he killed it for Syrians indefinitely, and then he killed it for the seven nationalities for 90 days, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, he gave governors the authority to withdraw from the refugee program if they don’t want refugees in their state.

The whole thing is coming to a grinding halt. The Syrians are in an worse position than anybody else. The best position are religious minorities. It’s harder to get in as a Christian now, under this new policy, than it has ever been. It's just that the only people who have any chance of getting in are Christians. It's a horrible policy.

Khazan: But this seems so different from the rationale for taking in people like me. There was so much discrimination in Russia, and the U.S. really stepped up so much. This seems like such a big departure from the past.

Hetfield: It is, it’s a huge departure from the past. The Jewish community has been amazing in terms of the support they’ve given us, and how they've come out against the Trump order. But every now and then, people say, "Jews never posed a security threat." But taking 400,000 Jews from the USSR, that was taking a big risk. People forget how scared of the Soviet Union we were, how powerful they were, how they were an ideological enemy of ours that really were out to destroy us. We decided that the risk was outweighed by the benefits. The success that the community has had in the United States has been amazing. But it was a huge security risk we took. I was a caseworker in Rome in 1989 and '90, and that was a big concern. But they worked through it.

Khazan: Would you say what Soviet refugees went through in Rome was a religious test?

Hetfield: It’s very similar. The Soviet Jews had to prove category membership, and once they proved they were a Jew, they had to prove how they were discriminated against. That’s very similar to what Christians will have to go through in the Middle East. But it wasn’t hard to prove persecution as a Jew in the Soviet Union, and it certainly isn't hard to prove persecution as a Christian in the Middle East.

Khazan: What are you doing going forward?

Hetfield: We're focused on advocacy right now. We still have a lot to do with the refugees we’ve resettled. They’re nervous as hell. All they can think about is bringing their family members over. Many of them are split from their immediate families. Now, that hope’s been dashed. That’s over. I can’t tell you how many depressing texts I’m getting. They’re despondent. There's no solution for them other than convincing the government to vacate this godawful executive order.

This order was issued on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. We find that particularly offensive, because the entire refugee protection regime emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust. There was no international law that protected refugees during the second World War, during the 1930s. That’s why Switzerland could push Jews back into Germany. That's why the United States could send back the St. Louis. That was recognized as a matter of shame by the governments of the world, so they drafted a refugee convention.

Now, Donald Trump is undoing that. This is going to have an impact on many levels. Beyond the impact on human beings who were supposed to come here as refugees, there’s a huge ripple effect that this is going to have. The United States is a leader that the rest of the world follows, especially when it comes to democracy and human rights and refugees. We, who have a more thorough vetting system for refugees than any country in the world, we, who are a country of refugees, and to decide we are afraid of them and are slamming our door in their faces, that means every other country is going to follow suit. And there’s nothing we can do about it anymore. The United States used to preach to the rest of the world to treat refugees the way that we do. Now, God knows we don’t want them to do that.