The ruling, issued Monday morning, ordered that the government can enforce the travel ban except in the case of people with “bona fide relationships” with American people or entities.
Left unaddressed is what exactly that means from refugees who may have contacts in the US through refugee organizations but little else.
“It could have been an easy day, it could have been a really sad day,” said Melanie Nezer of HIAS, a Jewish organization that does refugee resettlement. “Now it’s just kind of confusing.”
The Daily Beast reached out to spokespersons for the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security and didn’t get clarity from any of them; the State Department released a vague statement to reporters that didn’t mention refugees, and the others didn’t respond.
HIAS is a plaintiff in one of the travel ban cases the Supreme Court will consider in October. And for the time being, they’re hoping the government will take a broad interpretation of what exactly constitutes a “bona fide relationship.”
Nezer noted to The Daily Beast that refugees who go through America’s resettlement process work closely with U.S. government officials and American NGOs before coming to the U.S. American officials screen refugees for health problems and national security threats. And once a refugee has gone through that process, he or she gets connected with an American refugee resettlement agency, like HIAS. That agency lays the groundwork for the refugee to start a new life in the U.S., helping them find a place to live and start the hunt for work.
Nezer and other refugee advocates argue the vetting process means refugees have genuine relationships with an American entity––the government––that should exempt them from the ban.
But that isn’t a consensus view.
David Rivkin, a Constitutional lawyer and former Justice Department official during the George H. W. Bush and Reagan administrations, told The Daily Beast he didn’t think just going through the vetting process would qualify a refugee to be exempt from the ban.
“I would argue that just having been vetted isn't enough of a familial relationship,” he said, “but there will be litigation over this for sure.”
Nezer said she hopes the administration will take a different view.
“Just about everybody, if not everybody, who was allowed in before should still be allowed in,” she said. “Certainly in the refugee program, it’s hard to envision a scenario where they wouldn’t meet that requirement.”
And Becca Heller, who heads the International Refugee Assistance Project––the lead plaintiff in one of the cases the Supreme Court will hear––shares Nezer’s cautious optimism.
“The hope is that this really only impacts a very small number of people,” she told reporters on a call shortly after the court’s order came down.
She added that the court had created “a mildly unworkable and somewhat confusing standard.”
Even though the ruling put them in limbo, things could be worse for impacted refugees. Some advocates worried the court would revert to the much stricter ban that Trump first rolled out. And the court’s three conservatives, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and newly minted Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote they would have gone farther, reinstating the whole ban.
Instead, there’s just suspense and anxiety as refugee advocates wait to see how hard the Trump administration will fight for a restrictive ban.
And there’s certainly precedent for the Trump administration working energetically to keep out refugees. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller were vocal critics of the U.S. refugee resettlement program when Sessions was in the Senate and Miller was an advisor to him there. In a joint letter with Republican Rep. Dave Brat, Sessions wrote that the refugee resettlement program, along with other immigration policies, put Americans at “grave and needless risk.”
It’s unclear if members of the administration deciding how to move forward share that concern. And in the meantime, refugees have to wait and see.