People protest during a rally about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold President Trump's ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries on June 26, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Two years after Trump's travel ban, faith-based refugee groups struggle

(RNS) — Every morning when Khadra Abdo wakes up, her mind turns to her children.

“My first thought is that I hope they are safe today, and that stays on my mind throughout the whole day,” Abdo told Religion News Service through an interpreter provided by Church World Service.

The 40-year-old Muslim mother of seven was separated from her five oldest children from a first marriage nearly 12 years ago when she and her second husband fled civil war twice — first in Somalia, then in Libya. When they arrived in Columbus, Ohio, as refugees in 2012, she filed a request for her four teenaged daughters and one son, living with her 75-year-old mother in Ethiopia, to join her through World Relief.

Khadra Abdo. Courtesy photo

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Seven years later, she is still waiting. And the World Relief office that once helped her has been closed.

That closure in 2017 was a “direct result” of President Trump’s executive order to cut the number of refugees resettled that year in the United States, World Relief said at the time.

Over the past two years, the nation's refugee resettlement system has been slowly dismantled. The process started after President Trump temporarily suspended the entire refugee program in the United States and issued the first version of a ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries.

That dismantling has led to layoffs and office closings for resettlement groups. And it has left refugees like Abdo with little hope that their families will be reunited.

“Refugee resettlement isn't just a program. It is the way in which people find safety and the way in which people are reunited with their family members,” said Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program with Church World Service, one of six faith-based agencies authorized by the federal government to resettle refugees in the U.S.

Smyers told the story of one CWS client in Ohio who came to the U.S. more than two years ago. His pregnant wife was supposed to join him but had to reapply after she gave birth to their son.

The man still has never met his son.

“He Skypes with them every day, you know, but none of that can come close to holding your baby,” she said.

Jen Smyers. Photo courtesy of CWS

Smyers said that refugees get mixed signals from Americans. When they arrive at the airport, they are often met by the friendly faces of volunteers. But they then see and hear anti-refugee sentiment on the news.

Refugees ask if they are safe, if they are welcome, she said. They ask if they can share their stories without being deported. And they ask if they will have to flee again and seek refuge in another country.

“It shows the level of anxiety that people have about not being welcome where they finally thought they found a place where they could be safe,” Smyers said.

She worries about the policies that have limited the numbers of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States. And she worries about the rhetoric behind those policies, which paints refugees and immigrants as a threat. 

The rhetoric has also vilified the refugee resettlement groups themselves, with tragic consequences.

When the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh experienced a horrific mass shooting on Oct. 27, 2018 that left 11 dead and 7 wounded, reports emerged that the shooting suspect had not only posted anti-Semitic rants on social media, he had also railed against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, one of the refugee resettlement agencies.

The synagogue had been an enthusiastic supporter of HIAS, a Jewish organization, and the suspect posted the following shortly before the attack: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs at HIAS, said the incident has rocked her group but also triggered a surge in support.

“We were reeling from that tragedy, and still are in many ways,” she said. “Our commitment remains the same, or maybe even stronger, knowing that we have the support of our community and other faith communities that really believe in what we're doing.”

Still, refugee resettlement groups like HIAS face an uncertain future.

A World Relief moving truck with furnishings for a refugee resettlement home in Spokane, Wash. Photo by Viktoriya Aleksandrov/World Relief Spokane

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Agency heads told RNS that in addition to widespread layoffs and staff reductions in the wake of lowered refugee admissions, they also consolidated programs after the U.S. State Department informed them it would no longer authorize funding for smaller offices — those expected to handle fewer than 100 refugees in fiscal year 2018.

The nine agencies tasked with resettling refugees were also initially warned that the State Department might not renew funding for all of the agencies. Their funding for fiscal year 2018 was eventually authorized, but there were still reductions. 

"Consistent with the FY 2019 refugee admissions ceiling, we worked closely with refugee resettlement agencies to align the program with expected arrivals while ensuring appropriate services are available for arriving refugees," a State Department spokesperson told RNS, via email, when asked about the guidance it provided resettlement groups. "We will continue to base decisions on the location of resettlement affiliates on prioritizing family reunification to the extent practical and consideration of the local resettlement environment and economy."

Cuts to the refugee resettlement program will have lasting consequences, says Smyers.

“You're not just changing policy for a couple of years; you’re dismantling decades of work and relationships that will be nearly impossible to rebuild,” she said, referring to partnerships with local faith communities.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Thousands of Syrian refugees walk in order to cross into Turkey on June 14, 2015, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa Province, in Southeastern Turkey. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Bill Canny, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Service, said the government has pinpointed specific cities for downsizing, arguing there were simply too many refugee resettlement programs and not enough refugees.

He pointed to Dallas, where several refugee resettlement agencies — including the USCCB, which typically runs its programs through existing Catholic Charities chapters — have maintained robust programs for years.

“In Dallas, it's been very, very difficult,” Canny said, adding that their program there has been "the hardest hit.”

Emily Gray, senior vice president of U.S. ministries at World Relief, said that since the start of fiscal year 2017, the country has lost one-third of its capacity to welcome and resettle refugees in local communities.

“That’s why I say the situation is still pretty dire. The downward pressure is still pretty extreme,” Gray said.

U.S. refugee arrivals have followed global trends, except during the recent worldwide refugee surge. Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

During his first year in office, Trump set the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. at 45,000, a drop from 110,000 in Obama’s last year in office. The country actually admitted just a fraction of that number: 22,491 people.

The president set that number even lower this fiscal year, capping it at 30,000 people — the lowest in the history of the refugee resettlement program, which started in the 1980s.

“There's nothing about this these last two years that looks like anything else that I've experienced with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” said Kay Bellor, vice president of programs for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Asked if the government intended to resettle the full 30,000 refugees this year, a State Department spokesperson offered the following response via email: “The annual refugee resettlement ceiling is not a quota, but an upper limit on the number of refugees that can be resettled in a given fiscal year.”

Still, refugee resettlement agencies are at work.

This month Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service will welcome its first Syrian refugees since the ban went into place, said Baylor.

After a “very, very difficult” year in 2017, she said, agencies spent the last year figuring out how to “ride through this incredible storm.”

“It’s not going away,” she said.

And while President Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2017 that he would make persecuted Christian refugees a “priority,” Canny said the number of Christian refugees has not increased since Trump took office.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed a revised executive order for a U.S. travel ban, leaving Iraq off the list of targeted countries, on March 6, 2017. Trump signed the original ban at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27, 2017. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

RNS asked the State Department if the number or percentage of Christians has increased and if the administration was failing to live up to its promise to persecuted Christians. A State Department spokesperson emailed the following statement:

“The United States remains committed to advancing international religious freedom, including the protection of religious groups, across the globe. The United States will continue to resettle the most vulnerable refugees, including those who have fled religious persecution, while prioritizing the safety and security of the American people.”

While fewer refugees are arriving in the country, interest in volunteering with the faith-based agencies that resettle them has remained high.

“We have more churches and volunteers who want to work with refugees than we have refugees coming in,” said Smyers of CWS.

For CWS, that means helping refugees who have been in the U.S. for some time to take next steps: job training or with help writing a resume, applying for a green card or studying for the citizenship exam. It also means empowering and equipping refugees to make their voices heard.

Other agencies have focused their efforts on existing programs that help immigrants.

World Relief’s legal service and educational programs continue to grow even as layoffs have continued in its refugee resettlement programs. Some offices, like Chicago, won’t see any more refugee resettlement cases at least through the end of the year, Gray said.

At the same time, agencies have seen the “terrible impact of the retreat of the United States from its former leadership role” in welcoming the world’s refugees, Bellor said. They’ve seen families separated. They’ve seen them face the unknown.

Abdo now is pursuing her case through Community Refugee and Immigration Services, Church World Service’s refugee and immigration office in Columbus.

She talks “constantly” on the phone with her children in Ethiopia, she said through an interpreter. She works at a daycare and cares for her two youngest children, one born at a refugee camp in Libya and the other in the United States.

But, she said, “It is very hard and very difficult for a mother to be separated from her kids every day.”

In the meantime, Abdo is studying for her U.S. citizenship exam, which she hopes to pass this month. 

She has nothing but positive things to say about her experience living in the United States. And she loves the American people, she said — she hopes they can understand her plight and advocate for her and her children in any way they can.

“I'm hoping that with time my situation will get better and I will be reunited with my children,” she said. “The only ask that I have for an organization or anybody who can help me with my situation is just to be an advocate for me.”

(This story has been updated to note Khadra Abdo's status as a refugee, not an asylum seeker.)


  1. Has made my job in the national security side of the house much easier.

  2. We also have to look at what is happening in Europe. Western Europe is the most desired destination for people pouring out of Middle East and North African dictatorships and totalitarian governments. Europe has hit the wall with these refugee populations. Western Europe is a very small geographical location compared with the Middle East and Africa. It has become a numbers game. The continent of Africa is expected to double its population by the year 2050. It is not mathematically feasible to keep absorbing these populations. We already have more than enough people trying to get in from the Western hemisphere and being turned away at the borders, and they are all Christians.

  3. NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) June 14, 2016— New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton is calling it “ironic” that some NYPD officers assigned to a security detail at Trump Tower are Muslim.

    Bratton has said Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country hurts that effort.

    Bratton said the 36,000-officer NYPD has roughly 1,000 Muslim officers. He said some have been posted outside the midtown Manhattan skyscraper where Trump lives to help protect the Republican as he runs for president.

    Islamists vs. everyday people born into a Muslim culture– No honest Islamist could ever take the US Oath of Allegiance: I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God

  4. “much easier” How? Hardcore extremists can still get fake ID and enter through legitimate channels. Tens of thousands of amateurs are able to sneak into this Country every year. If you are in national security, never let your guard down. The harder you make it to get into this Country, the more sophisticated bad guys will up their game.

  5. To all those who supported Trumps half baked effort because it was intended as a Muslim ban, you have supported its critics. There was no legitimate interests served by it. Of course long after the fact we still don’t have any idea what “increases vetting” is supposed to amount to.

    Like all of Trump’s actions there was no thought given to implementing such plans and they are done in an intentionally haphazard fashion.

  6. Your job in national security…. because the Air Force suddenly grew a full fledged civil affairs division?

    An easier job for the government because of all those potential refugees bring murdered or enslaved rather than coming here.

  7. It’s a bad scene when population growth, climate change, religio-political upheavals, economic mismanagement, corruption and lawless violence push people to get up and move somewhere else. We are already seeing the decline of compassion, the decline of offers from the “better” places to welcome new people and share space. This loss of the “be kind”—–“do right for others” spirit is only going to increase as the 21st Century moves forward. This is the main reason why it is better to be on the older end of life right now than on the younger end right now. We are going to miss “sweet” works as more and more people conclude they can’t do them, can’t afford them, can’t deal with the numbers, etc., etc. What’s a Good Samaritan society to do? Give up and go hard? Find the talk that gets both the emotional and the physical walls built? That is happening as we speak, unfortunately.

  8. With regard to population growth and the overpopulation that fuels climate change, let us note that in 1975 the Ford administration produced the NSSM 200 report that called for universal access to contraception and safe, legal abortion, a recommendation that has been thwarted by conservative religious leaders and the politicians who kowtow to them.

  9. Based on population density, there is a significant difference between the US and Europe. In the US, most people live where the jobs are which creates the sense of limited capacity to absorb more people. And even Europe is seeing a decline in population – growth is only due to migration. What drives open or closed borders is politics I think – not capacity or humanitarianism.

  10. Good points, however,limited capacity also has to due with enough healthcare, living wages, waste management, social services, transportation, etc. We also want people bringing money into the Country to build real estate and start viable businesses that employ Americans, not taking money it out. We need more highly technical people who share our basic values, which are already quite charitable. And you are correct, it is not about humanitarianism. Someone just has to do the math.

  11. That’s why I’m glad we have democrats with good morals to address these issues – Ralph Shearer Northam and his KKK / blackface photo will show the nation that democrats stand for all people.
    THEN, Justin Fairfax can give his account on how to treat women with respect.

  12. I am quoting another (a Ms Ann Corcoran), but I concur with these good questions:

    “First,why did she have to leave her children behind in Ethiopia? And now
    nearly grown up, aren’t they safe in Ethiopia? Wouldn’t Abdo be safe in
    Ethiopia with grandma and the five kids.
    If she came to the US as an asylum seeker, that means she actually got in
    to the US with her present hubby (or at least we presume hubby is with
    her) and was not screened and admitted as a regular refugee. Did she
    come across our southern or northern border?
    Did she go through the asylum system and was she granted refugee status?
    And,heck, why would you try to run to Libya in the first place? Were they
    planning to break into Europe across the Mediterranean?”

    Somalia itself is safe enough that those who are already here, and have claimed asylum from that country, often go back home on holidays and to visit family. If it was so deadly then- and safe enough to visit now, why haven’t they returned home?

    Is this publication politically connected to UN’s “End Poverty in All Its Forms Everywhere” goal of erasing all borders and using American taxpayers earnings to fund (through taxation) the income equalization plan to realize this goal? What of Goal 10 of their Sustainability- which is to create “fast, easy/responsible migration”- that is, they use political agitators/change groups to bring about open borders? Does any other country on the planet have as porous a border as ours?

    About Abdo: Can’t she claim asylum in Ethiopia? Ethiopia is not terrible- it’s better than Somalia, and better than Libya.

    What will her adult children do, if they were here?

  13. 1. Western Europe is hardly at any realistic limit. The need immigrants to replace aging workers and keep their economies growing.

    2. Not all of Africa is coming to Europe.

    3. The USA can still support far more people than it now holds. Vast regions in the south and Midwest have very low population density. We do not turn people away at the border for reasons that actually make sense, but out of an archaic and racially biased immigration system from the early 1900’s that we’ve never done away with.

  14. Why not just have open borders? We aren’t an ethnically defined nation, our culture is supposedly a celebrated and ever changing melting pot, it doesn’t keep us safe or provide direct economic benefits.

  15. The problem is that you have to wait your turn and sign the guest list on the way in.

    It is not so much racial bias as it is cultural bias and classism. If they come with lots of money to start businesses and hire Americans, we would welcome them, no matter what they look like. But we are tribal by nature and will fight over the color of your shirt at a ballgame.

    Tribalism, sectarianism, nationalism, classism, racism, and sexism are all universal. The Western world is actually better at handling diversity than most parts of the world.

  16. We already do to a large extent. Our immigration laws aren’t reflective of our labor needs, foreign investment in the country or realistic goals of the immigration system.

  17. So when is the totally not racist GOP going to get rid of its dyed in the wool neo-nazi from Iowa Steve King?

    So when are you asking for Brett Kavanaugh’s resignation?

  18. Whattaboutism at its finest.
    We’re talking about the racists and sexual assaulters running VA.

  19. Nah. I am just saying if the GOP is going to be touting itself as the totally not-racist party unlike their evil partisan opponents, then might as well prove it where it matters. I am taking you at your word and everything it implies. 🙂

  20. Blackface has no place in America. Shame.
    Waiting for the resignations to begin in VA.

  21. I have no problem with removing Northam. I am not a Republican. I do not defend rapists, child molesters and russian operatives like they do.

    You are the one telling me the GOP is totally not the party of racists and white supremacists. If you are telling me the truth then we should be seeing efforts to remove an avowed neo-nazi in their midst. Steve King

  22. Racist democrats in VA and murdering democrats is NY.
    Here’s hoping the billionaire Howard Schultz can clean up the party.

  23. There are no murdering democrats in NY. But every republican supports enslaving the entire childbearing female population of the US.

    Plus the GOP still loves Nazis like Steve King and KKK Wizard David Duke endorsed Donald Trump.

  24. Why do democrats think it’s okay to go around in blackface?
    I thought they were better than everyone else.
    Next, they be wanting to kill viable babies after they’re born.

  25. So how many people have you seen defending Northam other than Northam? I haven’t seen any. Democrats are not like Republicans. They throw their miscreants under the bus.

    You defend them and make up crap for them as well as engage in whataboutism to deflect from their misdeeds.

    So when are the totally not-racist GOP going to get rid of its most obvious racist public figure Steve King? After all we trusted them to rid us of that klan loving Governor of VA. We can certainly expect them to get rid of a Nazi loving Congressman from Iowa

  26. Poll on townhall stated that dems are not bothered by the blackface nor abortion comments. Says a lot about the party in general.

  27. “They throw their miscreants under the bus.”

    More accurately, they throw their targets under the bus.

    Too bad they’re not as vigorous about anti-semitism.

  28. And god-fearing Republicans voted for Trump despite his issues. For some (on both sides) it’s party first.

  29. Townhall is a conservative wingnut site not known for its factual based content but notorious for banning people based on political views. They will never be a gauge as to what Democrats or liberals think on any given subject.
    Overall, we rate Townhall Right Biased based on story selection that always favors the right and denigrates the left. We also rate them Mixed for factual reporting due to the use of columnists that have poor fact check records

  30. Dems are better than republicans when it comes to this racist stuff – don’t you know him?!
    Waiting for joy behar, Jemele hill, Alyssa Milano, and the rest of the clown car to go off on the state of VA and their racist and sexually abusive politicians.

  31. Really for other readers who may not be familiar with Ann Corcoran.

    Why ask questions that you can get answers for ? – the specifics are personal information about Abdo but you can find answers to some of the questions in general.

    But some general figures. America ranks 49th in the world for percentage of citizens being foreign born at just under 13%. Approximately 3% of the population are estimated to be illegal immigrants – you know like the ones working at Trump’s golf courses. Columbia sees caravans of 5000 daily arriving from Venezuela.

  32. Too bad there’s not a poll charting racism by political affiliation. I would guess racism has no borders. Well, currently it does have a border – the state of Virginia.

  33. You don’t know that . Every day we see a Muslim raping, attacking, lying, defrauding, killing, and supporting terrorists. I wonder how many were prevented? Lots I bet. I’m not suicidal. I’m not interested in my kids being ruled by sharia. Anyone who sticks up for Islam in the west has lost their minds. Just look at history, they haven’t brought anything but civil war.

  34. Yup, they will out number the indigenous soon. But they don’t have the work ethic to support the country dominated by themselves and will probably immigrate elsewhere with generous welfare

  35. What does kavanagh have to do with anything? It was sickening seeing him smeared that way. Sick!

  36. Funny! Freudian slip, twinge of guilt? I didn’t mention that drunken rapist.

  37. Of course we do, one needs only to look at the first drafts.

    1. I doubt you are anywhere near an American Muslim community. So I doubt you know what the hell goes on in them. I however do (North Jersey). Whatever you have heard about them is largely crap. My guess is the sight of Wal-Mart checkout girls with hijabs I see every weekend would send you to apoplexy.

    2. Unlike American Muslims, who are a rather sedate and loyal community, I see white supremacist trash raping, lying, defrauding, murdering and committing acts of terrorism on a regular basis. Worse still they have the support of major political figures who ignores their acts and calls them “very fine people”.

    3.“I’m not interested in my kids being ruled by sharia.” My suggestion then is to move out the Bible Belt. Christian fundamentalists seek their own version of a Caliphate down there. Irony impaired fools like you hate defending our 1st Amendment, so they fear something that would never happen if it is upheld.

    4. “Just look at history, they haven’t brought anything but civil war.” Which is why I have to put up with loud muzzein calls, weekly beheadings, and the closing of all liquor stores in my area. Oh wait no I don’t. Not in the least. But I do have conservative trash Q fans always talking about what they would do with me in the “next civil war”.

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