The Trump administration will temporarily delay processing of most refugees from 11 countries identified as high-risk, while resuming refugee admissions for other countries, government officials said on Tuesday. Most of the affected countries are in the Middle East and Africa, according to documents seen by Reuters.
The administration also will place on hold a programme that allows for family reunification for some refugees resettled in the United States, according to a Trump administration memo seen by Reuters and sent to Congress on Tuesday. The resettling of so-called following-to-join refugees will resume, according to the memo, once screening "enhancements have been implemented."
US officials said the changes were aimed at protecting US national security, but refugee advocates said they amounted to a de facto ban on refugees from the 11 countries and were unnecessary, since refugees are already heavily vetted.
The changes come at the close of a 120-day ban on most refugees ordered by President Donald Trump to allow a review of vetting processes. The 120 days ended on Tuesday, and Trump issued an executive order allowing the general resumption of the US refugee programme.
The memo expressed concerns about admitting refugees from the 11 countries and said the government will conduct a 90-day review "to determine what additional safeguards, if any, are necessary to ensure ... the security and welfare of the United States."
Trump took office in January with a goal of sharply cutting refugee admissions, in line with promises he made during the 2016 election campaign. He quickly issued temporary bans on refugees and travellers from several Muslim-majority countries, which were challenged in court.
The 11 countries to face further hurdles are those whose refugees are currently required to undergo higher-level security screening known as Security Advisory Opinions, or SAOs.
As of the end of 2016, SAOs were required for most adult male refugees who were nationals of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, as well as Palestinians who lived in those countries, according to a State Department document seen by Reuters. Three sources familiar with refugee processing said that list was still current. Officials declined to name the 11 countries.
A senior US official told reporters on condition of anonymity that during the 90-day review period, refugees from the 11 countries can still be admitted to the United States on a case-by-case basis, "if it's deemed to be in the national interest and they pose no threat."
But the administration's memo, signed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, said the government will reallocate resources used to process refugees from SAO countries to those from other locations where "the processing may not be as resource intensive."
Refugees International, an advocacy group, said the decision amounted to "a new and near-total ban on admission of refugees from 11 nationality groups."
Citizens of the 11 countries comprised 44% of the nearly 54,000 refugees admitted into the United States in the 2017 fiscal year, according to State Department data.