Jesuit Refugee Service chief: refugee placements may pass muster under SCOTUS ruling

Pope Francis greets young refugees during a conference on families and adolescent education at Rome's Basilica of St. John Lateran on June 19. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)Pope Francis greets young refugees during a conference on families and adolescent education at Rome's Basilica of St. John Lateran on June 19. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

UPDATE: Noting that he has not changed his view that the Supreme Court ruling on the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban should allow refugee entry and resettlement into the United States to continue, JRS Executive Director David Robinson acknowledged on June 29 that the Trump administration had a different take on the June 26 decision.

He said it is clear today that the administration is pursuing a very narrow interpretation of what constitutes a bona fide relationship, one which the court says would allow a U.S. entry for travelers from six nations “banned” by the administration. He described that interpretation as “an unwarranted and rather unAmerican response to the refugee crisis.”


“Most people in this business believe that the court ruling allowed for [the Trump administration] to have a much more generous interpretation,” Mr. Robinson told America: “There is a lot of activity going on now among refugee organizations in Washington opposing this and considering what action to take.” He expects that legal challenges to the administration’s interpretation are likely.

“They have chosen to interpret bona fide relationships very narrowly and in a way that is prejudicial to people, even those who have already passed screening processes and are need of resettlement in the United States,” he said, noting this interpretation was not one shared by people working on resettlement efforts. He added, “I’m assuming this not the end of this discussion.”

According to Mr. Robinson, “the ruling did not demand this interpretation; this is a choice that the administration has made, and we feel it is unwarranted, unnecessary and unwise.”

Total clarity on the legitimacy of the Trump administration’s travel ban affecting six Muslim-majority nations would have been the best outcome, but David Robinson, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Services, is more or less content with the U.S. Supreme Court’s “mixed” ruling on June 26. The court agreed to take up the bigger issues related to the ban in the fall while allowing some aspects of the executive order to proceed now.

The travel ban bars people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days, but the court ruled it could only be applied to foreign nationals unable to make a verifiable claim to a relationship to “any person or entity in the United States.” Visa applicants who can demonstrate a U.S. connection, whether that be to a family member, a university, a job or, Mr. Robinson believes, sponsoring entities such as JRS, will still be allowed entry.

“This is a pretty broad exception to the ban,” he says, “and it does allow for legitimate entry into the United States for people who can pass the screening process, which is what we want.”

For the thousands of refugee applicants lining up for the lengthy vetting for resettlement into the United States, not much should change, he argues. Refugee applicants will be able to continue through the resettlement process because of their connections to sponsoring agencies on American soil. He suggests the only prohibited category of visa applicant may be tourists, adding wryly, “I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of tourists from Yemen.”

“This is a pretty broad exception to the ban,” he says, “and it does allow for legitimate entry into the United States for people who can pass the screening process, which is what we want.”

“From my perspective, the court decision has had the practical effect of essentially hollowing out the travel ban,” Mr. Robinson says. Indeed, a State Department spokesperson said on June 27 that refugees who have been vetted, approved for a move to the United States and scheduled to fly into the country through July 6 will be allowed in. The reinstated travel ban, already the source of some confusion, goes into effect on June 29.

Some immigrant-rights attorneys plan to head to the nation's major airports to make sure eligible foreigners are able to get into the country. But, according to the Associated Press, those attorneys say few people are likely to be affected, and they don't expect a repeat of the mass confusion that resulted earlier this year when Mr. Trump rolled out his original ban.

"Our hope is, unlike the chaos that previously occurred, there will be a much smoother and much less traumatic result," Caitlin Bellis, an attorney at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, told AP.

The United States is expected to accept about 50,000 refugees during the budget year that ends in September. Since October about 48,800 refugees have allowed to move to the United States. The State Department says that after the 50,000 refugee cap is reached, new people hoping to enter, per the court’s instruction, may be required to show a "bona fide" relationship with someone or some entity in the United States.

Mr. Robinson is relieved that the Supreme Court allowed a lower court ruling, throwing out the Trump administration’s plan to reduce the annual quota of refugees allowed into the United States, to stand. The administration was seeking a cut from 110,000 to to 51,000.

Whatever the court determines in the fall, Mr. Robinson stresses that JRS will continue to oppose the travel ban. He believes the Trump administration would be wise to simply declare victory after this latest decision and drop the ban.

“You can dress it up in any clothes you want to, but in the end it is a religious test for entry into the United States and it is aimed at Muslims,” he says. “This travel ban is contrary to what we stand for [as Americans],” Mr. Robinson says. “[The Trump administration] got a ruling and now they can spin it as some sort of win and let it go… They had to rush the travel ban through, but the urgency factor seems to be a little overstated.

“Now it’s time to let cooler heads prevail and let the professionals do their work.”

Candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which stoked fears of terrorist infiltration through the refugee resettlement process, was never fair to the vetting undertaken by U.N. and U.S. resettlement officers, he argues. Mr. Robinson spent decades in the U.S. foreign service before accepting the leadership role at JRS in April, so he is uniquely familiar with the “extreme vetting” already baked into the resettlement channel.

“It’s a very thorough process,” he says, “always has been.” Mr. Trump’s insistence that the current vetting regime was insufficient Mr. Robinson describes as rhetoric intended to appeal to people who were unfamiliar with the process. “It is very difficult to get into the United States,” he says, describing the U.S. protocol on resettlement entry as among the world’s most stringent.

“The people who work in the system know we already do ‘extreme vetting.’”

He explains that after candidates for resettlement are identified and reviewed by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, adjudicators from the Department of Homeland Security conduct their own interviews with resettlement applicants in the field. “After that happens there is an extensive, and I mean really extensive, review process by the intelligence agencies in the U.S.,” Mr. Robinson says. “It takes a long time for a refugee to go through all the hurdles.”

Security is important, he says, but it should not be the only concern as the United States joins the rest of the world in dealing with a historic refugee crisis—with 65 million people on the move all over the world, the most significant since the end of World War II, according to the United Nations.

Mr. Robinson urges the United States to show solidarity with the hard-pressed nations shouldering the largest refugee burdens—Kenya, Lebanon and Jordan among them—by at least accepting a comparably tiny share of the world’s refugees. A U.S. openness to refugees is not only a Christian imperative but a strategic good, he argues.

The historic role of the United States in resettling and successfully integrating people from the world’s conflict zones has been a geopolitical exemplar that can reduce global tensions, he says, while talk of a Muslim ban may inflame resentments and promote the animosity that propels global terrorism.

“Our [national] security does not just depend on hard power,” Mr. Robinson says. “It’s not just about how big our military budget is or how well our troops perform [in conflict zones]; they perform magnificently. It also depends on our standing in the world.” That standing will be reduced significantly, he argues, by ideas like a travel ban that primarily affects Muslim people. It may strike some as counterintuitive, but he believes continued openness “provides a measure of protection [from global terror] that we are endangering by this narrow focus on hard power.”

He adds that the problem of people driven across borders does not, in a sense, represent a crisis as much as a persisting reality that has to be somehow humanely managed.

“The fact of the matter is that refugees have been with us since Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden,” he says. “It’s not a crisis; it is part of the human condition and it has gone on forever and it will continue to go on as long as we live in a world of scarcity and conflict.” What can make the difference now, he argues, is building capacity by properly supporting agencies with the expertise to “manage” the problem and cease closing doors and hearts to the need.

“As a Catholic organization, we have the privilege and the duty to welcome the stranger.” Part of that job, according to Mr. Robinson, is to identify and encourage the policies and practices “that allow that to happen.”

A statement released by JRS on June 27 urged the Trump administration “to interpret the court order with compassion and generosity in the time between now and the final Court determination.”

It added: “Refugees know the cost of terror and persecution. They are the victims. The U.S. should welcome rather than fear refugees, including those from the countries named in the travel ban. Solidarity, not separation, is in our best instincts and interests.”

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Charles Erlinger
1 year 6 months ago

Amb. Robinson's optimistic idealism after all these years is marvelous to behold.


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