President Donald Trump's controversial executive order temporarily suspending the U.S. refugee admissions program has handicapped the work of South Carolina's leading resettlement agency, which had planned to settle roughly 100 refugees in the Charleston area this year.
"I think the most frustrating thing about it was how quickly (the president's executive order) was implemented with very poor communication to us from the administration," said Brian Evanger, the refugee services coordinator for Lutheran Services Carolinas' Charleston office.
"It was shortsighted. It seemed like they missed a lot of things that in hindsight should have easily been considered," he added.
In the last two weeks, Lutheran Services Carolinas has resettled 21 refugees in Charleston. Three families came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a bloody civil war from 1998-2003 and its aftermath has claimed more than 5 million lives. A fourth family arrived from Iraq the day before Trump signed the order.
Another refugee family, also originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was scheduled to arrive in the Lowcountry in February. But their travel plans have been cancelled, Evanger said. They may still be admitted to the U.S. after the president's 120-day moratorium lifts, but only after they've undergone additional screenings.
In addition to halting the program for 120 days and banning Syrians indefinitely, the president's executive order halves the country's annual cap on refugees. In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. will admit only 50,000 refugees — any more "would be detrimental to the interests of the United States," the order reads — down from the Obama administration's ceiling of 110,000.
The president's order also goes a step further, barring residents for at least 90 days from seven majority-Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
So far, the U.S. has admitted nearly 30,000 refugees since the start of the fiscal year in October. South Carolina has admitted 163 refugees in that time, including 11 Syrians who were resettled in Columbia, according to U.S. Department of State data. As of January 27, more than 67,000 refugees had been approved by the U.S. Department Homeland Security for resettlement.
"It's unfortunate in that we were hoping to resettle probably about 100 refugees in the year to term and of course now, with that overhead in place, we’re going to be to limited," said Ted Goins, president of Lutheran Services Carolinas. "These are people who for the most part are in refugee camps around the world that now have no hope, and it looks like even when we do open up for more refugees, we’re still gonna be way behind and really not doing our part."
Lutheran Services Carolinas, based in Salisbury, N.C., is an affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine national agencies working on behalf of the federal government to help refugees integrate into their communities and gain self-sufficiency. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has called the total halt of the U.S. refugee program "unprecedented." After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the refugee program was suspended for fewer than three months.
Contrary to some beliefs, refugees are required to undergo multiple, stringent security checks before they are admitted to the U.S., Goins said. The refugee admissions process, which includes interviews with the United Nations and U.S. State Department contractors and screening for contagious diseases, typically takes two to three years.
"There's so much misinformation out there," Goins said. "These are the people that are actually running from ISIS, that have been marked for death in their country or persecuted in their country. And they've been waiting in refugee camps for years for the opportunity to come, which I think is one of the most extreme vetting procedures we have."
Evanger said Lutheran Services Carolinas will refocus its efforts on assisting the newly arrived refugees in the Charleston area. His office is accepting donations, such as CARTA bus passes, grocery store gift cards, and gently used clothing and furniture, at the Community Outreach Center at St. Matthews at 403 King Street.