Last refugees arriving in US before enforcement of new travel ban

The final refugees to find asylum in the United States before the Trump administration's travel ban rules come into effect are arriving in the country. The ban will close the doors on many of the most vulnerable, advocates say.

Gregory Bull/AP
Ali Said waits at a center for refugees with his two sons Thursday, July 6, 2017 in San Diego.

As Ali Said of Somalia rolled his wheelchair up to a desk in a San Diego office hours after arriving in California from Kenya, he felt unbelievably lucky: He and his family are among the last refugees allowed into the United States before the Trump administration's latest travel ban rules kick in.

"Until this moment, in this interview, I still don't believe that I'm in the United States," Mr. Said told The Associated Press through a translator on Thursday, smiling with his two sons. "So during the flight, we all were saying that we are in a dream and it's not true yet until we finally landed at LAX and we all said to each other: 'Yeah, we're finally here. We made it.'"

The US refugee admissions program will be suspended July 12 when a cap of 50,000 refugee admissions for the current fiscal year – the lowest in a decade – is expected to be reached, according to the US State Department.

Once the cap is hit, only refugees who have a relationship with an immediate family member or ties to a business in the US will be eligible for admission during the 120-day suspension, the State Department guidelines say.

Those guidelines come after the Supreme Court partially reinstated the Trump administration's executive order banning citizens of six mainly Muslim countries and refugees from coming into the US.

The high court's ruling allowed for an exemption: Those with a "bona fide" relationship to the US. Under State Department guidelines, that was defined as immediate family such as a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or business.

Said is aware of the difference a week could have made. He, his wife, and children, ages 2 to 15, have no ties to the US beyond the refugee resettlement agency, which the US government says is not sufficient.

"I was afraid our case would be closed," he said. "It would have been a rough life."

He said refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where he lived have talked every day about President Trump's travel ban since it was first issued in January. It was blocked several times by US courts before the Supreme Court partially reinstated it in June. The Trump administration says the travel ban is necessary to keep Americans safe and to allow the federal government to review the vetting process for refugees and others.

Advocates say the ban will close the doors on many of the most vulnerable.

A record 65 million people currently are displaced by war and persecution worldwide, according to the UN refugee agency. It selects the most at-risk refugees to be recommended to governments for resettlement, which traditionally have included victims of gender-based violence, LGBT refugees, members of political opposition groups, and people with medical issues.

But the new requirements could mean many of those refugees could be passed over for those who have an immediate family member already in the US.

"This is part of the disconnect now," said David Murphy, executive director of the International Rescue Committee's San Diego office. "We identify families based upon need and now they have to have a US tie."

Said, who spent eight years being vetted for refugee resettlement, had feared he would never leave Kakuma, a 25-year-old camp that is home to about 172,000 refugees.

About a year ago, robbers broke into his home at the camp and tried to rape his wife, he said. Said, who was on crutches after losing his right leg to a grenade explosion in 1993, was shot in his good leg while fighting off the men. A neighbor coming to their aid shot to death one of the robbers. Said's children were home at the time.

He plans to get medical help now that he is in the US. On his first night in his new country, Said and his family said they slept peacefully in a San Diego motel.

But the feelings of happiness and relief are tinged with sadness, too.

"I don't like it that others like me won't be able to make it here," he said. "The life there is so hard. No matter how hard you work, you don't have enough to meet your basic needs."

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