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Is America hand-picking the best refugees?

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A Syrian refugee camp is seen in Sanliurfa, Turkey, in March 2015. The number of refugees entering the United States has steadily declined over the past two years. (Courtesy photo)
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From January to May this year, San Francisco County didn’t see a single refugee arriving from war-torn countries to make a home among us. Neighboring San Mateo County had four in December, and only one refugee entry since then.

Nationwide, the number of refugees entering the United States has plunged in 2017, with March and April registering 2,070 and 3,316, respectively — much lower than the 9,945 refugees who came to the country in October 2016.

The steady decline of refugees in the first five months of 2017 is “the longest consecutive monthly decline on record [since 2000],” according to the Pew Research Center. This decline does not play well to America’s humanitarian or economic advantage and implicates the current administration in an isolationist stance that defies critical, logical and empathetic coherence.

SEE RELATED: Why should we care about refugees?

Earlier this year, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee joined other mayors in urging President Donald Trump to reconsider his executive order halting the admission of refugees and other immigrants to the United States. It’s necessary to reiterate that message.

Refugees have an entrepreneurship rate that surpasses other immigrants; in California, their spending power is more than $17.2 billion; more refugees choose to become citizens than other immigrants; they revitalize our neighborhoods, and we all benefit greatly from their enterprise, according to a study by New American Economy.

At a refugee awareness event, organized by Microsoft and Oxfam America — an organization working to combat global poverty — at Microsoft’s Bay Area campus on June 12, Noah Gottschalk, senior policy advisor at Oxfam America, was unsparing in his criticism of the White House’s policy on refugees. “Even though successive courts have said this is illegal, even though the public has increasingly said this is immoral, the administration has found ways to cut the number of refugees coming into the country,” Gottschalk said.

Less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide are resettled annually, according to a Migration Policy Institute report. There were 21.3 million refugees at the end of 2015, and Syria alone generated 4.9 million refugees that same year.

Realizing the exigency of this crisis, the Obama administration increased the refugee acceptance limit from 85,000 to 110,000 for Fiscal Year 2017. But soon after Trump was sworn in, that number was reduced to 50,000.

Ali Aljundi, Syria Projects and Advocacy Officer at Oxfam and once a refugee from Syria, said he was lucky to make it to America. He grew up in Salamieh and recalled the city as being a “place of tolerance and diversity,” according to his profile published on Oxfamamerica.org. Aljundi’s father, a bus driver for the Ministry of Agriculture, recognized and enabled Aljundi’s abiding passion for learning. He struck up a friendship with a bookseller who agreed to lend books to Aljundi, so long as they were returned in a salable condition.

But once the Syrian conflict escalated, books, peace and hope became talking points. Aljundi’s wife Hanadi Adrah worked as an art teacher in Salamieh and received threats of kidnapping and death if she persisted with teaching art. Aljundi began to feel like a target since he traveled in a white United Nations vehicle for his job as a career guidance coordinator for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, Aljundi made it out of Syria by securing a two-year scholarship for a master’s degree in sustainable international development at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. He was 52 at the time. Aljundi was one of only three people from Syria selected by Open Society Foundation for the scholarship at the time.

The U.S. resettlement screening has always been extremely rigorous.

“It’s updated on a regular basis. It has multiple fail-safes and redundancies to make sure that people don’t slip through the cracks who are trying to do harm to the United States,” Gottschalk emphasized. Most importantly, refugees don’t choose or apply to come to the U.S. It is the resettlement program that determines candidates based on their circumstances.

Ali Aljundi, a Syrian refugee who now serves as Syria Projects and Advocacy Officer at Oxfam, escaped his home country by securing a two-year scholarship for a master’s degree in sustainable international development at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. (Courtesy photo)

Indeed, a travel ban is only one part of the indifference the Trump administration has shown to the unsettling refugee crisis. The process of vetting candidates can take several years, and approval time can be significantly increased by delaying interviews, refusing visas without explanations or demanding documents that are difficult to procure.

Aljundi related the story of his sister, who has been living as a refugee in Jordan for five years. She has been in the resettlement program for three years, but it is unlikely that her application will be approved.

“She left her husband back in Syria and doesn’t know where he is. So, officially, she is still married,” Aljundi explained. But she is required to produce documents about her husband and her divorce, both of which she does not have.

The success of refugees is a story that needs no elaboration. And this is not because they are picked for their superior abilities. In fact, according to Gottschalk, “Refugees are picked based on vulnerability criteria. Period.” The fact that refugees flourish in America is because they are resilient and America provides them with the infrastructure to thrive.

“Look at my kids. They came without English, and in less than five years, within two years, really, it’s like they were born here,” Aljundi said. “It’s because here the people are welcoming, the education system is generally great and the integration system is very good.”

That is a great testament to America’s refugee program. So what is the Trump administration afraid of?

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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