Twelve refugees arrived in San Diego County in June, the lowest number of new arrivals in over a decade, according to data from the State Department.
San Diego County has been known for taking in the most refugees of any county in California since 2009 because it has been a hub for Iraqi arrivals, who first began resettling in large numbers in late summer of 2007. The June arrivals are from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Kenya.
The county’s arrivals have dropped significantly since President Donald Trump first signed an executive order in January that paused the U.S. resettlement program and reduced the number of refugees that the U.S. would accept per year by more than half, to 50,000 from 110,000.
As refugee advocates and the federal government fought in court over the legality of the order, which was rescinded and replaced in March, refugee arrivals stopped and sputtered, with increasingly small numbers getting flights to their intended new homes in the U.S.
That’s the opposite of the trend for previous years when summer months saw surges in refugee arrivals in the county, sometimes more than 700 in one month.
San Diego County was fifth in the state for arrivals in June, taking in fewer refugees than Los Angeles and three other counties.
Imperial Beach resident Ernie Griffes opposed his city’s designation as a welcoming city because he was concerned more refugees might settle there, and he supported Trump in part for his immigration platform.
Griffes worried that a large refugee family might move in on his street and he wouldn’t know who they were or whether they’d been vetted sufficiently. He called it “a big problem for quiet, little communities.”
Griffes said he’s glad that arrivals have slowed, as Trump promised they would.
“This is what is intended as the nation tries to digest culturally and financially the strains on neighborhoods and resources of non-citizens demanding services and support of all kinds that even citizens cannot get,” Griffes said via email. “This is a part of what the president was elected to do, and we’re pleased to see it happening.”
Robert Moser, Catholic Charities executive director, said the court battle over Trump’s order has created a constant uncertainty for refugees and resettlement agencies.
“You don’t know today what’s going to happen tomorrow because yesterday what you expected to happen didn’t,” Moser said over the phone. “It’s really, really hard to explain or convey what the impact is or will be other than the fact that the numbers have practically just stopped.”
Moser began working in refugee resettlement in 1980, and remembers waves of refugee arrivals that mirrored conflicts that erupted around the world. Refugees began arriving at least few years after a conflict started, he said, because of the time it takes to process and screen them.
In 1951, after World War II and the Holocaust, the United States gathered with other members of the United Nations to create an international protocol for handling refugees. The document does not commit any country to taking in a specific number of refugees.
Under U.S. law, the president decides each year how many refugees the country will accept, and Congress approves funding for those arrivals. Congress codified today’s refugee resettlement program in 1980.
Moser said that since then, he’s seen cycles of welcoming and discouraging refugee resettlement in the U.S. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, refugees stopped coming amid security concerns. Gradually, he said, arrivals built up to last year with the largest number he’d seen since 1994.
“I expect that long after I’m finished doing this work, refugees will still be coming in waves and in drifts depending on what’s going on,” Moser said.
In the mid-’90s, the county tried to get rid of its refugee resettlement program twice, Moser said.
“The issue was the carrying capacity versus the caring capacity,” Moser said. “You still hear it today.”
All four of San Diego’s resettlement agencies have received an outpouring of donations and support, he said, which outweighs any hate mail or other harassment they get.
“It gets meaner over the years, but in my experience, it’s never been the characteristic response of San Diegans,” Moser said. “I think for the most part San Diegans appreciate the fact that we’re a diverse community.”
At the end of June, the Supreme Court allowed parts of Trump’s executive order, which had been blocked by lower courts, to go into effect for individuals who didn’t have bona fide relationships with people or organizations in the U.S. The court gave examples of bona fide relationships but did not fully define the term, which launched another round of legal battles over the executive order.
The number of refugee arrivals for the federal fiscal year, which started in October, reached 50,000 this month, the total allowed for the whole year under Trump’s order. Under current court decisions, those who have family already in the U.S. can keep coming despite the cap, and refugees who had been scheduled to come but do not have family ties will not be allowed in.
One family from Kazakhstan was scheduled to arrive this week, according to David Murphy, executive director for San Diego’s office of the International Rescue Committee. The family had members in the U.S., so they were not blocked by the cap, and the mother and father ended up on a plane to their new home. Their daughter was split into a different case and did not have a flight booked to come with them. They are still hoping she will be able to join them.
They were afraid to speak to media, Murphy said, because they worried it would affect their daughter’s case.
“They’re very distraught,” Murphy said over the phone.
The International Rescue Committee, one of four resettlement agencies in San Diego, knows of 98 refugees with such ties who were scheduled to come this year, Murphy said. None are scheduled to come next week, and 17 of them are scheduled for August.
He lamented the up-and-down that refugees planning to come to the U.S. this year must be feeling. Refugees travel with a couple of suitcases, he said, so right before they leave, they get rid of most of the belongings that they acquired during their years in the camp.
“It’s a poor policy when you have to get all the lawyers involved and figure out what it means,” Murphy said.
He did not know how many, if any, of the 98 currently expected refugees would actually arrive in San Diego.
Murphy said resettlement agencies are anticipating that 50,000 will be the new annual cap on arrivals going forward.
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