Eighty million people around the world have been forcibly displaced, and every year, more people are applying for asylum in the United States. The refugee resettlement system suffered large budget cuts during the Trump administration; as more people apply for asylum, the average wait time continues to increase. Refugees, asylum seekers and advocates discuss how they would like to see the Biden administration address these problems.
WILL CLARK: Before we begin, a content warning: this episode contains mentions of sexual violence, religious violence, homophobic violence and suicide. Some names have been changed out of concern for safety.
KARIM: I don’t know how I can deal with this separation. I’m thinking if I stay here for five or six years without seeing my daughter and my wife, after that, my daughter will grow up and change.
ANTON: I had the feeling that somebody’s watching me, somebody is gonna say something to me, somebody is gonna throw something at me, somebody is gonna come up and do something to me. I was so scared, I still had that feeling still with me from Ukraine.
YUNUS: I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m scared about the future of my family, of my daughter.
WILL CLARK: In 2020, the number of people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes surpassed 80 million. That number is double what it was just ten years ago. Often, these people are displaced by armed conflicts, ethnic and religious discrimination and humanitarian crises. Many of them try to seek safety in other countries as refugees or asylum seekers, but that process has become more challenging in recent years. Many countries in North America and Europe have started putting heavy restrictions on immigration and refugee programs. Today, we’re asking refugees, asylum seekers and organizers in the Evanston and Chicago areas what issues they’re concerned about and how they would like to see the American refugee and asylum systems change in order to address them. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Will Clark. Welcome to The Ripple, a podcast exploring the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern communities.
LAURA YOUNGBERG: I’m a strong believer that your budget is where your values are. And if you truly value resettling refugees because it’s a moral imperative as our country, and because refugees have a great deal to bring to the United States, then you put money into this process.
WILL CLARK: So, what is the refugee admissions process? In 1980, Congress passed the Refugee Act, which created a standardized system for identifying, screening and resettling refugees in the United States. The refugee admissions process has lots of moving pieces, but it all starts with the annual refugee admissions cap. The admissions cap is proposed by the president and approved by Congress, and it basically sets a goal for how many refugees the U.S. aims to accept in a given year — although it isn’t always realized. That goal also determines funding for the organizations that screen refugees before they arrive, resettle them in the U.S. and support them as they acclimate to American society.
Historically, the admissions cap — and refugee policy in general — hasn’t adhered to strict partisan lines. Ronald Reagan set the admissions cap at a high point of 217,000 during his first year in office. The admissions cap fluctuated between 67,000 and 142,000 for the following fifteen years. But that changed in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected president and began slashing refugee admissions. In 2017, he set the admissions cap at 50,000, the lowest it had ever been, and every subsequent year of his presidency, that number decreased, eventually dropping to a mere 18,000 in 2020. That abrupt shift had major impacts on refugee communities as well as the infrastructure designed to support them. That’s why activists are now calling on Biden to take decisive action on refugee policy.
To start us off, I sat down with Laura Youngberg, the executive director at the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance, or MIRA. MIRA is a Chicago-based organization that helps Middle Eastern and North African refugees and asylum seekers with their needs after arriving in the U.S. I asked Laura to walk me through the refugee admissions process, in chronological order.
LAURA YOUNGBERG: The framework for refugee resettlement is actually established by the United Nations, and the United States is actually a signatory onto this framework. There’s specific criteria that you need to meet in order to be considered a refugee.
WILL CLARK: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a refugee is someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, (or) membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” That person has to have crossed international borders and be unable to return to their home country for fear of persecution. Once a person proves that these conditions apply to them, they start a process that can eventually lead to resettlement.
LAURA YOUNGBERG: They go through a very extended security review process that’s first done by whatever the local agency is that’s running the refugee resettlement program on behalf of the UNHCR. And then, if they happen to be assigned to the United States, then the United States goes through an additional security clearance program through the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security.
WILL CLARK: Laura said that review process can take years.
LAURA YOUNGBERG: Most folks who are in that process, they’re in this kind of limbo state. They’re waiting for the call that says, “Okay, you’ve been approved, your flight is this day.” You get like two -weeks notice, so pack your stuff and say goodbye.
WILL CLARK: During those years of limbo, people sometimes get married or have children. Laura said that since spouses and children need to go through the same security clearance checks, there can be delays in the system, making the process even longer. But after refugees do land on American soil, they’re met with a new group of organizations working to support them. First, is refugee resettlement agencies.
LAUREN WEST: They are assigned to a local agency in the U.S., and that agency is the one that actually welcomes them at the airport, helps them find their first apartment, their first job, et cetera.
WILL CLARK: Joining us is Lauren West, the development and communications director at the Syrian Community Network or SCN, another Chicago-based organization working with refugee and immigrant communities. Every refugee is assigned to one of the resettlement agencies Lauren mentioned, and these agencies are basically nonprofits that have contracts with the federal government. They help newly arrived refugees find employment, apply for Social Security cards, enroll in school and find language classes. But they only receive federal funding to help each refugee for three months, although some organizations continue to help for a little longer than that.
LAURA YOUNGBERG: After those three months, that’s when agencies like MIRA come into play because honestly, if you think about going to move into another country, even intentionally and with lots of planning ahead of time, the first three months are a total haze. You have no idea what’s happening.
WILL CLARK: The bottom line is: refugees still need support beyond their first couple of months in the U.S. Some don’t speak English, and many need help navigating the education, public benefits, healthcare and legal systems. That adjustment can be especially difficult for those who are dealing with trauma from their experiences in their home countries. Organizations like MIRA and SCN help people with these types of long-term needs.
LAUREN WEST: There are just so many needs that these families have. Even for me as an American who grew up here, I could barely navigate the healthcare system. So having to do it not knowing English, having come from a totally different culture, totally different approach to some of these systems, it’s really critical that they have someone who can guide them through it.
WILL CLARK: On top of navigating American bureaucracy, many refugees are looking for community spaces where they can feel connected to people with whom they share cultural backgrounds. To hear more about that, I sat down with Nasir Zakaria, a refugee from Myanmar who founded the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago.
NASIR ZAKARIA: Every community, they have their own community center, (their) own space. So we are one of the new communities in Chicago. We must have space also.
WILL CLARK: Nasir told me his organizing stems from his experience as a refugee. He left Myanmar when he was just a teenager.
NASIR ZAKARIA: I left my country when I was 14 years old because of torture and discrimination. I love my country, but the government is always targeting Rohingya people, so not only me, but many other Rohingya people, they leave (the) country because it’s unsafe.
WILL CLARK: The Rohingya people are a mostly Muslim minority ethnic group living under Myanmar’s majority-Buddhist government.
NASIR ZAKARIA: So what happened in 1982 is they made a citizenship law. The ethnic Rohingya minority is not a citizen of Burma. The military power, they take away our citizenship rights, our culture, our motherland, our life. They’re killing, they’re raping — they made us stateless.
WILL CLARK: Nasir is talking about a 1982 citizenship law that Myanmar’s government passed. It effectively rendered the Rohingya people stateless, and since then, the government has confined them to specific camps and villages, restricted their movement and cut them off from accessing food, healthcare and education. Myanmar’s military has perpetrated mass killings and campaigns of sexual violence against Rohingya Muslims. In 2018, the UN determined that there’s sufficient evidence to call for an investigation into potential genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
NASIR ZAKARIA: So when I left my country, I could see I don’t have hope to go back. Because it’s not safe. And even I never seen my family in more than 30 years.
WILL CLARK: Nasir had to leave without his family, and he lost contact with them. When he left, he went from Myanmar to Bangladesh, then from Bangladesh to Thailand, from Thailand to Malaysia, then finally to the U.S. He was one of the first Rohingya refugees to arrive on U.S. soil. In 2016, he founded the Rohingya Cultural Center in Rogers Park to support people going through a similar journey.
NASIR ZAKARIA: My goal is to support education in the community, because the Rohingya community has zero education because our government forced us to be uneducated.
WILL CLARK: That’s why, at the cultural center, they run English, Quran and citizenship classes, as well as youth groups and after-school programs. Nasir said having a community space also allows Chicago’s Rohingya community to continue to speak up for the Rohingya people back in Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia.
NASIR ZAKARIA: We have gatherings and demonstrations for people in suffering. We do not stay silent; we always raise voices for our Rohingya people to remind them that Rohingya people need protection in Burma.
WILL CLARK: Nasir said he’s constantly receiving messages on WhatsApp from Rohingya people overseas who have heard about the cultural center. They tell him about military violence and random arrests, and they ask him for help finding safety and locating lost family members. He said he receives the bulk of these messages at night due to the time difference, and the sheer number of them can be overwhelming.
NASIR ZAKARIA: Sometimes I have to turn off my cell phone.
WILL CLARK: Nasir wants to see the Biden administration expand refugee admissions so more people experiencing violence and discrimination across the world can seek safety in the United States. On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to increase the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 during his first year in office. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, after months of back-and-forth and lots of pressure from activists, the Biden administration announced in May that they would increase the admissions cap to 62,500 — more than the Trump administration but still historically low. Nasir said he’d like to see Biden increase it more.
NASIR ZAKARIA: I hope they want more than 60,000 because not only one country has refugees, many other countries have refugees.
WILL CLARK: However, Lauren and Laura said they’re not confident that the U.S. will even reach Biden’s goal of resettling 62,500 refugees this year, since Trump’s historically low admissions caps left lasting impacts on the refugee admissions system.
LAUREN WEST: The resettlement system was hit very hard in the last few years because of the lack of newcomers and, therefore, the lack of funding.
WILL CLARK: If you remember, federal funding for refugee agencies is tied to the admissions cap.
LAURA YOUNGBERG: They had to do their layoffs and close their offices based on the refugee admissions cap. So many, many offices closed, a lot of people were laid off, and the system in general was really decimated.
WILL CLARK: These layoffs meant organizations lost a lot of knowledge and expertise that were integral to keeping the refugee admissions system functioning. However, Lauren said she does think it’s possible to increase refugee admissions, but she thinks it will take commitment on the federal government’s part.
LAUREN WEST: It’s not at all that the infrastructure is completely gone, it just needs to be revitalized. And so that’s one area that we’re really pushing for, is that Congress in their appropriations will pass an increase in funding specifically for refugee resettlement.
WILL CLARK: Lauren also said she’d like to see legislation to set a minimum refugee admissions cap in the future. She said that if that happens, an admissions cap of 125,000 could be feasible for 2022.
WILL CLARK: It’s not just refugees and resettlement workers who want a higher admissions cap. Many Americans have friends and family members living in conflict zones overseas, and the Biden administration’s refugee policy affects them as well. To hear more about that, I spoke with Selam Kahsay, a student at Loyola University Chicago. Selam has family living in the Ethiopian state of Tigray, which has been a center of extreme violence since Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops there last November.
SELAM KAHSAY: He has closed off any access to humanitarian aid, and even in the places that he has allowed it to come through, they have kept the food at least until they were past expiration, or he has allowed the Eritrean troops to loot it. So the food is not even actually getting to people that need it. Homes, schools, hospitals, churches are being looted and mosques and other religious sites are being looted, women are being raped. They’ve closed the border off, so people cannot flee to Sudan. They’ve already had around 56,000 refugees flee and now they have their militants at the border just so those people can’t flee anymore.
WILL CLARK: Selam said she hasn’t been in contact with most of her family in Tigray.
SELAM KAHSAY: The prime minister cut off access to communication. There are some places where you can reach people, but the majority of places you still can’t, and we haven’t been able to talk to a majority of our family members.
WILL CLARK: She told me the situation reminds her of her parents’ story. Her parents came to the U.S. as refugees from Tigray in 1975 during another conflict.
SELAM KAHSAY: This is not the first time this has happened to the region of Tigray. It happened in 1975, and it’s happening now, and in 1975 was when my parents were there, and when a majority of my family (fled) and came here as refugees through Sudan. So, it’s like they’re reliving their trauma, so it’s hard to watch them just go through that again.
WILL CLARK: Selam wants to see Western media and politicians spend more time talking about what’s happening in Ethiopia, but she also said refugee policy is a major way to address the humanitarian crisis.
SELAM KAHSAY: I think we need our asylum seeking and refugee policies back. Of course nobody wants to leave their country, but their country is no longer a place they can live. And if you have open land, if you have open jobs, if you have opportunities for other people to take, I don’t understand why it’s a problem, or why it’s something to gatekeep.
WILL CLARK: Not every displaced person goes through the refugee admissions process in order to find a safe place to live. Others come to the United States as asylum seekers, a separate process with policy challenges of its own. While refugees request protection overseas and are then admitted to the U.S., asylum seekers come to the U.S. first, then petition for protection. So, basically, asylum seekers face the same types of persecution and violence that refugees do in their home countries, but they come to the United States on their own, then apply for asylum upon arrival. One asylum seeker I spoke to was fleeing religious discrimination in his home country.
KARIM: Me and my wife were belonging to a religious group called Ahmadiyya. It’s a kind of community working to reform Islam. They are not accepted by most of the Islamic scholars, and they are persecuted in many Muslim countries, especially Pakistan and Algeria.
WILL CLARK: That’s Karim. He and his wife both worked as doctors in his home country of Algeria, where they had a ten-year-old daughter. They’re also Ahmadis. Ahmadis are a religious minority group who identify as Muslim but are accused of heresy by some Sunni and Shia Muslims. Since 2016, the Algerian government has increasingly accused the Ahmadiyya community of deviating from Islamic principles, and Ahmadis have been jailed for gathering and practicing their faith throughout the country.
KARIM: They started to run after us. I had been arrested many times and jailed. I was fired from my job, and my graduate diplomas also have been confiscated by the state, my travel documents and many of my properties.
WILL CLARK: Karim got a visa at the U.S. Embassy in January 2020 and fled from Algeria to Chicago. However, because he was in such a rush, he said he didn’t have time to get a family visa. He came to the United States by himself, while his wife and daughter had to temporarily remain in Algeria. Since he left, the Algerian government sentenced him to prison.
I also spoke with Yunus, an asylum seeker who arrived in Chicago in March of 2020 — just before COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect. Yunus fled to the United States from Iraq, where he faced persecution for participating in protests against government corruption and the influence of Iranian militias over Iraqi politics.
YUNUS: So we created a fake Facebook page, and we started to express our opinion and upload some videos from Tahrir Square. Tahrir Square is just like the center of the protest. Although this revolution started in Baghdad, it’s spread to nearly the whole country.
WILL CLARK: One day, Yunus was driving back from Tahrir Square after delivering some food and medical supplies to protesters.
YUNUS: We were stopped by a police checkpoint. It was me, my friend and my cousin all together in the same car. So they asked for our IDs. When we give our identification card, they took a picture of it. So here we were wondering why they did that. We were sure that they took those pictures to some other militias so our name would be with them. So we just had an objection — we told the policeman, “Why are you doing that?” He told me, “No, I just want to be sure that it’s not a fake ID.” I told him if you want to just check if it’s a fake ID or not, you can do this right now. So that was inconvenient, and we were sure that there was something wrong with this guy.
WILL CLARK: That day, Yunus went home with an uneasy feeling. He and his friends were worried about the ID picture, although they still felt confident that the police didn’t know they ran the protest Facebook page. Then about a week later, a small group of people showed up at Yunus’s parents’ house claiming to be national security agents. On his official papers, Yunus still lived with his parents, even though he had recently moved into his own house with his wife and one-year-old daughter. The people claiming to be national security agents told Yunus’s dad that they needed to ask Yunus some questions about his wife’s residency. However, his dad thought something seemed wrong.
YUNUS: My father told them, “My son is not not in Iraq; he left Iraq.” They told my father, “We will bring him, even if he’s outside of Iraq, and that we are not from the security; we are from Hezbollah. We know all about you and your son, and we will get him soon.”
WILL CLARK: Hezbollah is an Iran-backed militant group, and they’ve been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries. Yunus said he thinks the police supplied them with the picture of his ID.
YUNUS: My father called me and told me “Don’t go to your home.” So I changed my address. For maybe two weeks, I stayed with my friends. I bring my wife and my daughter, and we live all with my friends in another neighborhood.
WILL CLARK: He and his wife sold most of their belongings then flew to Chicago, where his wife had relatives who offered them a place to stay.
Anton was the last asylum seeker I spoke with, and he came to the United States to escape violence and discrimination in Ukraine.
ANTON: I’m seeking asylum here because, unfortunately, I was being persecuted back in Ukraine based on my sexual orientation. We have an organization back in Ukraine who specifically creates fake accounts on dating apps for gay people. They talk to you like, you know, it’s a normal person. They have fake pictures on there, and when you set up a date with that person and you show up, instead of one person (showing) up it’s three, with cameras with them. And they basically start filming you, and they start physically assaulting you. And they start manipulating you. What they did to me, they asked for a specific amount of money, if you’re not going to give (it) to us, we’re going to send this video all over, to your job, to whoever they want to. You can lose a job because of that, and you’ll lose respect from people.
WILL CLARK: Anton said that assaults like the one he had experienced sometimes drove people to kill themselves.
ANTON: I ended up being in a medical facility, I ended up going to the police, but nothing gets solved, and I didn’t get any help. You’re not getting protection from nobody. Even if we’re talking about police, unfortunately they’re not helping you with that.
WILL CLARK: After that happened to him, Anton said he decided he couldn’t continue living in Ukraine. He spent a long time saving up money and making plans to leave. But he said leaving wasn’t an easy decision.
ANTON: I’m changing my whole life — I had a really good career over there, I had to just leave everything and start my life from scratch.
WILL CLARK: He came to Chicago in 2016.
ANTON: I remember, for the first time going to Boystown, I felt like “Oh my god, what am I doing here?” I had the feeling that somebody’s watching, somebody is gonna say something to me, somebody is gonna throw something at me, somebody is gonna come up and do something to me. I was so scared, I still had that feeling still with me from Ukraine. I felt like somebody from that organization is following me over here; I got that scared. But then slowly, slowly, that feeling went away.
WILL CLARK: Although Anton feels safer in the United States, he can’t know for sure whether he’ll be allowed to stay here. His case is still pending.
Asylum seekers have to go through a legal process to prove to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, that their home country is unsafe. They start the process by filing a statement detailing why they left their home country and why it would be unsafe for them to return, usually with the help of a lawyer. Then, they get an appointment where USCIS collects biometric information, like fingerprints and an ID photo. After that, they wait to be invited to an interview with USCIS, and then USCIS makes a final decision about their case. But in recent years, this process has gotten slower and slower, forcing some asylum seekers to wait years before finding out whether they’ll be allowed to stay in the U.S. Anton is one of those people. He and his lawyer filed his statement after he arrived in the U.S in 2016, but he still hasn’t been invited to an interview.
ANTON: Me and my lawyer, we did send several letters, then a case inquiry, but we keep getting the same answer that your case is pending and when we schedule you for an interview you will receive a notification.
WILL CLARK: I asked Phil Robertson, the litigation director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations’s Chicago office, about these long wait times. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, runs an Asylum Project that provides legal aid to asylum seekers. Phil told me that when he first started working with asylum seekers in 2015 during the Obama administration, they tended to wait between six months and a year for their interview after filing their case. Then, after they were interviewed, final decisions came about six to 12 months later, generally. Under Obama, USCIS interviewed asylum seekers by order of when they arrived in the United States — those who arrived first were interviewed first. However, the Trump administration changed that priority. They started interviewing the people who had arrived most recently before those who had been waiting longer. Phil said under Trump, initial interviews were scheduled extremely quickly, sometimes so quickly that asylum seekers had trouble gathering all the documents they needed to strengthen their cases. But wait times for final decisions lengthened. Phil said so far, under the Biden administration, wait times for both interviews and final decisions have been fairly long. Karim expressed his frustration with the long waiting period.
KARIM: Now, there is nothing clear about how long it will take. And sincerely, I am upset about that, because when I left Algeria and left my family there, I was hoping to rejoin them in almost one, or maximum two years. But now we are separated for an open period of time. We don’t know, maybe after five years, six years, some people say ten years.
WILL CLARK: When Karim left Algeria in 2020, he didn’t have enough time to get a family visa. So he decided to come to the United States by himself and seek asylum. Then, if his case was accepted, he planned to request family reunification in order to bring his wife and daughter to the U.S. as well. Now, he’s realizing that that process could take years.
KARIM: I don’t know how I can deal with this separation. I’m thinking if I stay here for five or six years without seeing my daughter and my wife, after that my daughter will grow up and change, and something like the relation between me and her will be changed also.
WILL CLARK: Karim said he stays in close contact with his wife and daughter. They had to move out of their home in order to avoid further government persecution, and his wife took a job at a private clinic since she could no longer work at the government hospital. Since we last spoke, Karim received an invitation to an interview with USCIS. He told me he hopes this is a sign that the process will move faster than he thought it would. But Yunus told me that waiting has taken a toll on his mental health.
YUNUS: I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m scared about the future of my family, of my daughter. So to be honest, I have a problem in sleeping, I have insomnia. I am 28 years old, and I have hypertension. When I asked my primary care physician why I have hypertension, he said maybe it’s just anxiety because you’re just anxious all the time. The day is 24 hours, I think maybe 25 hours about my case, about what is going to happen in the future.
WILL CLARK: Yunus is also concerned about long wait times because asylum seekers aren’t supposed to leave the country while they’re waiting for their cases to be processed. His dad was recently diagnosed with leukemia and received treatment in Turkey, but Yunus couldn’t go visit him. Anton said he is worried about the same thing.
ANTON: I still have all my family back in Ukraine, my parents back in Ukraine, and I realize if something happens to them tomorrow, and I gotta to leave and go help them, if they got sick, and I have to take care of them, if I leave, I’m not going to be able to come back over here.
WILL CLARK: Phil told me these long wait times are likely due to a backlog caused by an increase in yearly asylum applications. In 2010, 32,885 asylum applications were filed, and since then, the number of applications has gotten higher almost every year. In 2020, about 200,000 applications were filed. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed USCIS’s ability to conduct interviews and process cases, creating more delays. To address the backlog, Biden pledged to double the number of immigration judges, court staff and interpreters. Phil isn’t sure whether or not those changes have happened yet, but he still has hope for the young administration. In the coming months, he said he wants Biden to ramp up staffing at USCIS and mandate that they conduct interviews and deliver final decisions within 240 days of application at most.
The coming months will reveal the amount of funding, staffing and energy Biden is willing to put into revitalizing the refugee and asylum systems so people can seek safety within the United States. And in the meantime, people like Anton, Karim and Yunus, as well as those with friends and family in conflict zones, like Selam and Nasir, are forced to keep waiting.
ANTON: I’ve lived all these five years with a hanging feeling. You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow.
WILL CLARK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Will Clark. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Ripple. This episode was reported and produced by myself, Will Clark. The audio editor of The Daily is Madison Smith. The digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi. The editor in chief is Jacob Fulton.
Email: [email protected]