SAN DIEGO — More than 260 refugees who were vetted, approved and booked to come to the United States have had their flights canceled by the State Department over the past two weeks because they do not qualify under restrictions imposed by former President Donald Trump, refugee resettlement agencies say.
The restrictions came when Trump capped refugee admissions at a record low of 15,000. President Joe Biden proposed quadrupling refugee admissions and eliminating Trump’s restrictions in a plan that was communicated to Congress three weeks ago.
Meantime, the State Department, which coordinates flights with resettlement agencies, booked the refugees with the anticipation that Biden would have replaced Trump’s orders by now, according to the agencies. But Biden has not issued a presidential determination since his administration notified Congress, which is required by law, and Trump’s orders have remained in place.
The action does not require congressional approval and past presidents have issued such presidential determinations that set the cap on refugee admissions shortly after the notification to Congress.
As a result, the State Department has canceled the flights of at least 264 refugees and more cancellations are expected, according to resettlement agencies.
Most of the refugees are from Africa and do not qualify for entry under the restrictions that Trump implemented that allocated most of the spots for people fleeing religious persecution, Iraqis who have assisted U.S. forces there, and people from Central America’s Northern Triangle, the resettlement agencies say.
Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a Maryland-based Jewish nonprofit that is one of nine agencies that resettles refugees in the U.S., said all flights for refugees who don’t qualify under Trump’s restrictions have been canceled through March 19.
“Real lives are being impacted,” Hetfield said. “To say I am very disappointed that the Biden administration would treat refugees this way would be an understatement.”
Many of the refugees had sold their belongings and left places they were renting and now are scrambling to find another place to stay until they get word they can come to the United States.
Melaku Gebretsadik, 54, an Eritrean refugee who lives in Greeley, Colorado, was on his way to the Denver airport Tuesday with flowers and gifts to greet his wife and three children when he was told their flights were canceled. He has been waiting to be reunited with them for a decade.
“My heart was broken,” Gebretsadik said through an interpreter.
His family was told they should be re-booked on a flight in a couple of weeks but Gebretsadik is not going to get his hopes up.
“I don’t know what to believe,” he said.
The Biden administration gave no explanation about the delay or cancellation of flights when asked about the situation Thursday.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Secretary of State Antony Blinken “believes that it is very much in our DNA to be a country that welcomes those fleeing persecution, welcomes those fleeing violence the world over. It is precisely why discriminatory travel bans were done away with.”
But he said he had no updates at this time on “our efforts to undo some of the damage to the program.”
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which also resettles refugees, said many are in precarious situations.
“After four years of draconian Trump administration policies, it’s critical that the Biden administration expeditiously issue its presidential determination to ensure these new Americans can safely enter their new home country,” she said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.