Sara Mohammed Saleem was the first in her family to arrive in Dallas as an Iraqi refugee — two days after Donald Trump was elected president of the country she wanted to call her new home.
The 26-year-old dentist was bursting with hope and anxiety. By December, her father, Faris Saleh, an electrical engineer, and her teenage brother Mohammed joined her in Dallas.
But her mother and younger sister, also engineers, remain stuck in the global refugee pipeline. Their plans to migrate to the U.S. have been caught up in President Donald Trump’s executive orders temporarily suspending refugee resettlement into the U.S. and later giving greater scrutiny to refugees from countries such as Iraq.
All refugee resettlement in the U.S. has been falling sharply, but the effect is most dramatic among people from predominantly Muslim nations, even as civil wars and violent unrest continue in Syria, Somalia and elsewhere.
Among the hardest hit by the slowdown are Iraqis. This fiscal year, fewer than 100 Iraqis have arrived in the U.S through January — a trickle compared to the nearly 5,000 who arrived in the same period a year earlier, data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center shows.
Sara said she found it “really exciting to finally be settled” in Dallas, “But only half of my family is here. If your family is not complete, you don’t feel 100 percent here.”
Her father, the 54-year family patriarch, is more blunt: “I feel sometimes like I am a criminal because of all these security checks.”
The White House declined to comment, deferring questions to the State Department. There, a spokeswoman said the State Department can’t comment on individual refugee cases.
“The United States is committed to assisting people of all religions, ethnicities, and nationalities who are fleeing persecution, violence, and other drivers of displacement. Resettlement decisions do not preference one religion over another,” the spokeswoman said.
“The time frame for each refugee’s case is different. Processing times can be impacted by a number of factors, including security checks, medical checks and the operational capacity” of the Department of Homeland Security and its immigration and citizenship agency, she said.
Yet the U.S. has taken in more than 143,000 refugees from Iraq since U.S. troops invaded that nation in March 2003 to search for weapons of mass destruction and eventually topple the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein.
Hussein was captured in 2003 and executed in 2006 but the violence didn’t end. Eventually, a civil war erupted with more bloodshed. The U.S. responded by admitting more and more refugees from Iraq, including 20,000 in fiscal 2014 alone.
‘Your case is on hold’
Saleh met Zahraa Yahya Issa al Salihi while they were engineering students, and in 1988, they married. An old photo shows them staring into the camera confident and serious in dark blazers.
He was Sunni Muslim. She was Shia Muslim. It hardly mattered in those years, their first-born Sara says.
That changed under the Sunni-led government of Hussein. The family wanted nothing to do with politics. Being perceived as coming from the wrong party could get an entire family killed, Sara said. They had seen it.
Saleh left Baghdad for a job in the United Arab Emirates. By 2003, with the U.S. ready to invade Iraq, he knew it was time for the entire family to make their exit. Zahraa fled Baghdad with her three small children, Sara, Sama and Mohammed, to the port city of Basra on the Persian Gulf.
They settled in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The father worked as a construction engineer until his last job ended in 2014.
Without a work permit, he’d have to leave the U.A.E. or face deportation to war-torn Iraq, he said.
The family went to Jordan, and there each family member was vetted and received refugee status from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Within two years, Sara was approved for U.S. resettlement. Then came her father and brother.
They moved into an apartment in Plano with their few possessions. Inside the tidy apartment, a big white frame with photos of the entire family sits on a mantel in a place of honor.
For Sara, there’s a daily ritual: She checks a U.S. government website to see if there’s any movement on the status of her 54-year-old mother, Zahraa, and her 25-year-old sister Sama.
It’s always the same: “Your case is on hold pending review” with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Trump’s tough policies under what’s become generally known as a “travel ban” have been challenged in multiple courts. The administration has lost on some issues, but not all, especially when the cases relate to refugees.
He lowered the ceiling on how many refugee can be welcomed in the U.S. to 50,000 people in January 2017, and that withstood court challenge. Then, Trump lowered the ceiling to 45,000. His moves to toughen vetting of refugees from certain countries, including Iraq, have seriously exacerbated the refugee slowdown.
Worse, for refugees, is that there is no way to challenge a decision or a non-decision where a refugee is simply waiting and waiting, said Mark Hetfield, an attorney and president of HIAS, a resettlement organization in Silver Spring, Md.
“No one is willing to question security vetting,” Hetfield said. “It doesn’t mean that it is working. It doesn’t mean that they are making good decisions, and there is nothing the people can do to challenge a decision or non-decision.”
Further, Hetfield said, “The administration has carried out the promise of the Muslim ban, even though they lose in courts. They have found other ways to do it. They lowered the ceiling and they have paralyzed the system with extreme vetting.”
Vetting of refugees was already extensive, resettlement and human rights groups say. On average, it takes about two years for final approval with scrutiny by the U.N. agency for refugees and such U.S. agencies as the FBI, the Homeland Security Department, the Defense Department and the State Department.
With the sharp decline in Muslim refugee resettlement, “At least, in part, we play into the rhetoric of Islamic extremists who says the U.S. is anti-Islam,” said Bill Holston, executive director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. “Barring people who are fleeing persecution doesn’t make us safer. It never has. Our failure to admit refugees prior to the Holocaust is something we are rightly ashamed of.”
David Bier, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, noted that lowered refugee admissions can aggravate foreign policy relationships and the willingness of other countries to cooperate with the U.S.
In the fight against terrorism, creating animosity toward certain groups of people, such as Muslims or Iraqis, can be counterproductive and even been used to assist terrorist groups, Bier said. “If they can portray the U.S. as singling out Iraqis as a group as undesirable to Americans, that aids their recruitment efforts,” Bier said.
But Trump’s tough refugee policies have fans among conservatives who have long been pushing for more immigration restrictions.
“Extreme vetting is supposed to get at whether a refugee or prospective immigrant has beliefs in totalitarian ideology even when they don’t belong in a terrorist organization,” said Mark Krikorian, who runs the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies.
As for the decline in Muslim resettlement, Krikorian said it reflects the target countries in Trump’s calls for deeper vetting. ”There aren’t any ISIS members among Christian refugees,” Krikorian said.
‘A wasted life’
Every day, there’s a second ritual for Sara and her family: She, her father and her brother make a morning Skype call to Amman, Jordan, where it’s nightfall.
Sama answers. A smile spreads across her father’s face when he hears the crystal-clear, high voice of his youngest daughter.
His daughter and wife have now been waiting more than three years for U.S. approval to resettle in America.
The wife has disc problems with her spine, and sometimes her hands go numb. She’s been told she needs surgery, Sama said.
“There is nothing to do here,” Sama says from Jordan. “There is no work. There is no one we know here. There is nothing we can have that is related to a better life.”
Then, her voice almost cracks. “It is just a wasted life.”
The father looks pained as he listens at the dining room table.
“All they think about is reducing the numbers in any way. No matter the consequences,” the father says later. “Sometimes, they end up rejecting people after years.”
Mohammed, 19, with his mother’s striking sky-blue eyes, says no one chooses to be a refugee. It’s just a fact: Wars create refugees.
He left Iraq at the age of 5. Now he, his sister and his father work at Kroger.
Mohammed’s focused on becoming a chemical engineer. With his 4.0 GPA at Collin College, he’s on the president’s list and has been encouraged to join honor societies. He recently applied for a green card so that he can eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.
Sara has applied for a green card, too. Her days and nights are full with work, study and volunteering at the Red Cross. She’ll start a two-year dentistry program soon.
But she wants her family whole again.
“Security checks for women should be quicker,” she says.
The checks include questions about teachers and family members you haven’t heard from in years, she says. Frustrated, she says that the government asks for emails and for phone numbers for the last 10 years. “Who can remember that?”
The father says he’s most frustrated by the never-ending insecurity of his life.
“When we reached here, it was a milestone,” he says. “We are trying to find a safe place to build a new home. The problem for me is I feel lonely.”
He needs a heart operation — and that has stopped him from looking for work in his engineering field. He wants his wife at his side before having surgery.
Some days, the solitude grips him.
He leaves his apartment complex and rides his bicycle past the grocer that sells halal meats, past the Compassion Buddhist Center and into the mosque.
There, under the ivory minarets and the green dome, he can join other Muslims and feel community again. There, he can lose himself in prayer, mournful but soothing.