KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Persecuted Christians in Myanmar (or Burma) might be the first to suffer President Donald Trump’s reduction of available refugee visas.
Tin, her husband and five children have cleared years of refugee hurdles to come to the U.S.: blood tests, interviews, DNA and fingerprints, background checks. She has her one must-bring possession within reach, a well-worn Bible, and keeps their phone charged for the U.S. Embassy to call.
But the odds of that happening dropped precipitously.
President Donald Trump’s 16-page travel ban bars new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and shuts down America’s refugee program through mid-July. His executive order had been set to take effect Thursday, but a federal judge put it on hold hours before it was to begin.
The order also includes a 55 percent reduction in refugee visas overall, from a planned 110,000 to 50,000 this year. This means, in some of the most desperate places in the world, 60,000 refugee visas are not going to be issued after all.
Who are the 60,000 people who may have lost their chance to resettle in the U.S. by September? An Associated Press analysis of 10 years of refugee data suggests that their most common country of origin is not any of the six nations in the travel ban, but Myanmar, also known as Burma. Thousands, like Tin and her family, are Christians who were persecuted in their native country.
They expected to resettle before September in the U.S., a place they consider home. More than 160,000 Burmese have resettled in the U.S. in the past decade, more than any other group. They account for nearly 25 percent of new U.S. refugees since 2007.
“America is really our fatherland in terms of religion,” said Tin, 38. “They sent their missionaries to our country and taught us to be Christians. And now we had to escape. All we want is to be safe.”
Christians face religious and political discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Its nascent democracy is heavily influenced by a military that ruled for half a century and remains at war with several ethnic groups, some of which are majority Christian.
Tin and her community fled Chin state, where Human Rights Watch says more than 90 percent of the residents were adhering to the tenets of the American Baptist Church by 2009, pitting them against a military campaign to elevate Buddhism over all other religions.
Tin and others said that when they gathered for family prayers, people threw rocks at them. Soldiers busted into church services. They hid their precious Bibles for fear of attack.
School teacher Sang, 29, a Burmese refugee who learned English as a theology student, meticulously read through a copy of Trump’s executive order last week and then looked up, nodding.
He said that while he agreed with the need to keep terrorists out of the U.S., “We are not terrorists, we are Christians. We will never be a problem in the United States. We will get educations, we will work hard. We only seek safety.”
Tin and Sang are among more than 100,000 Christian Burmese refugees forced to flee in recent years. They live out of suitcases in abject poverty in Malaysia. Their kids can’t go to school, and they risk deportation or detention if they try to report a crime.
And it’s not just Christians. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have also been forced to escape the country of 51 million, where soldiers torched homes, raped women and killed them in a crackdown that began in October.
Trump’s “Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” says lowering the cap is necessary to U.S. interests. But the swift reduction in refugee visas interrupts work underway by federal law enforcement agencies and nonprofits around the world to vet 110,000 people in 2017, the highest number in decades. It was an attempt to put a small dent in the record 65 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide.
Nearly 38,000 have been admitted so far. Another 72,000 were preparing to arrive before the fiscal year ends in September. Instead, under Trump’s order just 12,000 more will be allowed in. Exceptions can be made if the secretaries of State and Homeland Security agree.
“The safety and security of the American people is our highest priority,” said a State Department official who provided a statement on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk on the record about it.
The U.S. defines refugees as people of “special humanitarian concern” who have been persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
An AP analysis found that nearly half the refugees who have arrived in fiscal year 2017 came from the seven majority Muslim countries named in an earlier executive order. Refugees from Syria, in particular, have arrived in greater numbers in the past twelve months. Burma’s share has dropped from 26 percent of all spots in 2015 to just 8 percent of the refugee caseload so far this fiscal year.
The AP also found refugees from Bhutan and Afghanistan make up a smaller proportion admitted in 2017 than in previous years.
About 210,000 refugees, largely Vietnamese and Cambodians, came to the U.S. in 1980, the most in any year. Refugee arrivals dropped to less than 30,000 after 9/11 prompted strict new immigration rules. But they have increased fairly steadily since 2004, and overall refugee admissions reached 85,000 last year.
The journeys of Burmese refugees begin in some of the poorest places on Earth: remote villages in strife-ridden regions. They pay smugglers upward of $500 for the harrowing two-week journey. Some end up in Thailand, where an estimated 100,000 live in refugee camps, known locally as “temporary shelters.” Thai officials did not allow AP to visit.
In Malaysia there are about 130,000 Burmese refugees awaiting resettlement. They live in Kuala Lumpur’s poorest neighborhoods, their makeshift plywood walls dividing ordinary two-bedroom apartments into a half dozen stifling family units, a stark contrast to the city’s glimmering skyscrapers. They can stay for years, their belongings packed in baggage, so they can be near the United Nations and U.S. Embassy if called to get stamps on documents or meet with officials.
Earlier this week, Tin — the mother waiting for the embassy to call — dropped off her youngest son at a volunteer-run school. A teacher wrote words on the board, and asked students for three descriptive phrases.
Bauri Ram, 11, stared at his word, President.
“Donald Trump,” someone had written. “Help other people.”
Bauri Ram took up the blue marker: “They help refugees.”
Hoyer reported from Washington. Associated Press journalist Maureen Linke in Washington contributed to this report.