Flights to bring some refugees to the US are being canceled

Posted at 5:30 PM, Sep 23, 2019

Flights for some refugees who were approved to come to the United States have been canceled, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The move has sparked concern among resettlement agencies that have booked travel for refugees into October, anticipating the continuation of arrivals in the upcoming fiscal year. It also has the potential of leaving some refugees who were approved to come to the US in limbo.

"It concerns me that our local offices have done a bunch of work and started to make plans for these cases to come. It's so atypical," said Rachel Pollock, director of resettlement services for United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the nine resettlement agencies that work with the State Department to place refugees.

"No one really knows what's coming or what's going to happen. It seems like a further move away from what we've come to expect from this program," Pollock added.

The International Organization for Migration, which is in charge of booking refugees on their travel, sent cancellation notices out Monday morning.

A notice obtained by CNN includes the travel itinerary for individuals whose travel was booked for October and canceled. The stated reason for cancellation: "FY20 moratorium extension."

The notice doesn't provide an end date for the extension.

The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration directed the International Organization for Migration to send the notifications, according to a department spokesperson, who added the moratorium is being extended through October 21. The department is working with the organization to rebook the flights contingent upon the refugee admissions ceiling for fiscal year 2020.

The notices come on the heels of President Donald Trump's arrival to the United Nations General Assembly. Last year, Trump set the refugee cap to 30,000, the lowest level since 1980. The administration has been nearing that ceiling as the fiscal year comes to a close. As of August 2019, more than 28,000 refugees had been admitted to the US, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center.

It's unclear where the current number of arrivals stands, and why the administration is pushing a moratorium into October.

"Every year, we have an arrivals moratorium. I've never seen a moratorium go past a week," a source said, noting that there's typically a break in the first week of October as agencies prepare for the next onslaught of refugees in the new fiscal year.

The cancellations could be particularly troubling for refugees whose medical exams or security checks, for example, are on the cusp of expiring.

"The first thing is to obviously let our local resettlement offices know. They have the deeply upsetting task of telling families who have been waiting for years that there's a delay," Naomi Steinberg, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, one of the resettlement agencies. "These are real families that are going to be torn apart by this for who knows how much longer."

The administration has yet to announce next year's cap.

Earlier this month, senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services expressing concerns over the administration's approach to next year's refugee ceiling.

"We are increasingly disturbed by the administration's disregard for legal requirements, congressional intent, and the importance of refugee resettlement to our nation," the letter reads. The refugee cap requires consultation with Congress.

Another State Department spokesperson told CNN last week the determination is expected to be made by the end of the month, adding, "We do not discuss internal and interagency deliberations or communications involved in those deliberations."

As a result of the declining admissions under the Trump administration, all nine resettlement agencies have had to close offices or pause their placement programs -- chipping away at a system designed to not only place refugees but also help them integrate into communities across the country.

As of April 2019, around 100 offices have either closed entirely or suspended their refugee resettlement program, a third of offices nationwide, according to a Refugee Council USA report released this year.