Days before Christmas, mere miles from my home in the western suburbs of Chicago, my youth ministry and I delivered a Welcome Pack containing the basic supplies needed to begin life in America to a refugee family from Sudan.
They'd fled Sudan years before, when the violence there made it impossible for them to stay. They'd literally run to Egypt, where their family settled into an apartment.
That was early 2011.
Days later, Egypt imploded. President Mubarek – who'd ruled the country for 30 years – stepped down. The country then elected Mohamed Morsi. Two years later, a coup d'etat ousted him.
So much for safety.
Suddenly, the country this family ran to in search of safety was just as dangerous as the one they'd fled. Left with no choice, they applied for refugee resettlement through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and endured.
Three years later, the United States - the promised land - finally accepted them for resettlement.
They did so only after this family underwent extensive vetting.
UNHCR first verified they met all the legal definitions of a refugee through personal interviews. Because of the sheer volume of refugees in the world, only a fraction of refugees are able to be resettled each year in other countries. As a result, the UNHCR gives resettlement priority to
- Refugees who aren't fully safe in the country of refuge (like my friends from Sudan)
- Those who have experienced torture or other violence
- Those with serious medical conditions requiring lifesaving care that is inadequate or unavailable in the country of refuge
- Women and girls who are uniquely at risk of gender-based violence
- Individuals for whom resettlement would allow them to be reunified with other family members
- Those for whom there is no foreseeable hope of local integration or voluntary return to their country of origin.
If a refugee passes that test, the UNCHR may then recommend resettlement. If they do, they refer those refugees to a specific country's State Department (or it's equivalent).
In the United States, once the UNHCR has recommended a refugee for resettlement, the next step is an interview with an officer who's been specifically trained to conduct security interviews from the US Department of Homeland Security. It often takes months (or years!) even to receive this interview, which many refugees will tell you is the most nerve-wracking experience of their life (that's something coming from people who have literally fled their country fearing that if they stayed, they'd be killed).
In this interview, officers again verify a refugee is indeed a refugee, checking their story with intelligence sources and with third-parties. They confirm refugee's are not a threat to the United States. They also collect biometric details and run background checks with various databases operated by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and US Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense.
If they pass that interview, refugees then undergo a thorough medical exam. To be eligible for resettlement, a doctor must verify refugees do not present a public health threat to the United States.
This process typically takes at least 18 months.
If a refugee completes and passes each of these steps, the International Organization for Migration arranges their transportation to the United States. Refugees are then required to repay this loan once they are resettled.
That's extreme vetting and it's worth noting, it's already in place. It has been for years – long before Trump was ever sworn in as President.
My Sudanese friends underwent each of these steps before they were resettled in the United States.
Now, under the Executive Order signed by President Trump on Friday, January 27, my Sudanese friends would not be allowed into our country since they are from one of the seven “countries of concern” mentioned in the order.
Even if they weren't, now, under President Trumps' Executive Order, as refugees, my friends would not be allowed into our country for the next four months, the time in which President Trump has called for a halt on all refugee resettlements.
This order, like the one President Obama signed in 2011 halting refugee resettlement from Iraq, is unconscionable.
It's also not Christian. While there are many things in Scripture that can be debated, refugee resettlement isn't one of them.
This weekend, my heart broke for my Sudanese friends and for the refugees I know, none of whom pose a threat to our national security.
This weekend, I wept, with and for my friends. I sobbed, as I realized that if Jesus – whose birth we celebrated a mere month ago – was born today, he, too, would be shut out of our country.
Jesus was, after all, a refugee.