U.S. suspends refugee resettlement interviews, expecting Trump refugee ban

WASHINGTON, Jan 26 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has temporarily halted trips by staff to interview refugees abroad as it prepares for a likely shakeup of refugee policy by President Donald Trump, two sources with knowledge of the decision said on Thursday.

The decision effectively amounts to a pause in future refugee admissions, given that the interviews are a crucial step in an often years-long process.

The DHS leadership's decision to halt the interview trips was communicated to those involved in the U.S. refugee admission process on Wednesday, one of the sources said.

It means that though Trump has not yet ordered a temporary halt to the refugee program, future admissions are likely to be delayed.

Trump is expected to sign an executive order that would include a temporary ban on all refugees, and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries.

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A red sun is seen over a dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees drifting in the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece after its motor broke down off the Greek island of Kos, August 11, 2015. United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on Greece to take control of the "total chaos" on Mediterranean islands, where thousands of migrants have landed. About 124,000 have arrived this year by sea, many via Turkey, according to Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis 
Afghan refugees struggle to swim ashore after their dinghy with a broken engine drifted out of control off the Greek island of Lesbos while crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
An Afghan migrant jumps off an overcrowded raft onto a beach at the Greek island of Lesbos October 19, 2015. Thousands of refugees - mostly fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq - attempt daily to cross the Aegean Sea from nearby Turkey, a short trip but a perilous one in the inflatable boats the migrants use, often in rough seas.Almost 400,000 people have arrived in Greece this year, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, overwhelming the cash-strapped nation's ability to cope. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis 
Afghan immigrants land at a beach on the Greek island of Kos after crossing a portion of the south-eastern Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece on a dinghy early May 27, 2015. Despite the bad weather at least a dingy with over thirty migrants made the dangerous voyage to Greece. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis 
A local man helps a Syrian refugee who jumped off board from a dinghy as he swims exhausted at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis 
A Syrian refugee holds onto his two children as he struggles to disembark from a raft on the northern coast of the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos September 24, 2015. Over 850,000 migrants and refugees have arrived on the Greek island in 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
An Afghan migrant is seen inside a bus following his arrival by the Eleftherios Venizelos passenger ferry with over 2,500 migrants and refugees from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, October 8, 2015. Refugee and migrant arrivals to Greece this year will soon reach 400,000, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Syrian refugee girl sits in a bus at a temporary registration camp during a rain storm on the Greek island of Lesbos October 21, 2015. Over half a million refugees and migrants have arrived by sea in Greece this year and the rate of arrivals is rising with over 8,000 coming on Monday alone, in a rush to beat the onset of freezing winter, the United Nations said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis 
A Syrian refugee girl who was briefly separated from her parents cries as she walks through a rainstorm towards Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. Thousands of refugees and migrants, including many families with young children, have been left soaked after spending the night sleeping in the open in torrential rain on the Greek-Macedonian border. About 7,000 people waited in the mud of an open field near the northern Greek village of Idomeni to cross the border, with more arriving in trains, buses and taxis, as Macedonian police has imposed rationing in the flow of refugees. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
A Syrian refugee child cries as she is squeezed by other refugees and migrants trying to move ahead at Geece's border with Macedonia near the village of Idomeni early morning September 7, 2015. Thousands of migrants and refugees were crowding at Greece's border with Macedonia on Monday morning, their entry slowly rationed by Greek and Macedonian police.. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
A Greek policeman pushes refugees behind a barrier at Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 9, 2015. Most of the people flooding into Europe are refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries who have a legal right to seek asylum, the United Nations said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian policemen to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. Most of the people flooding into Europe are refes fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries who have a legal right to seek asylum, the United Nations said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis 
A Macedonian policeman lifts his baton against refugees and migrants as they wait to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. Most of the people flooding into Europe are refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries who have a legal right to seek asylum, the United Nations said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Syrian refugees walk through the mud as they cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis 
A Syrian refugee kisses his daughter as he walks through a rainstorm towards Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday that Trump could sign several executive orders on Friday, but that the nature of those had not been decided yet.

Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project at the New York-based Urban Justice Center, said she was informed of the decision to halt the overseas interviews by several people in and outside of government.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which conducts the refugee interviews, did not respond to a request for comment.

DHS officers regularly visit countries such as Jordan, Malaysia, El Salvador, Kenya and Ethiopia to interview refugees seeking to enter the United States. It is usually one of the last steps in the refugee resettlement process.

Heller said the decision to halt the overseas interviews would cause delays in refugee processing even if Trump decides to maintain the refugee program or re-start it after a temporary closure.

"In the past, when we've frozen the refugee program to re-examine security issues, it's been really important to continue processing even if you can't admit people, because processing times in this program can be two to three years," Heller said.

During the election campaign, Trump decried former President Barack Obama's decision to increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States over fears that those fleeing the country's civil war would carry out attacks.

Obama approved allowing up to 110,000 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year, compared with 85,000 the prior year.

Trump said during the election campaign that there was no proper system to vet refugees.

In addition to the interviews, refugees hoping to be resettled in the United States undergo extensive security screening by multiple U.S. agencies as well as vetting by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Written by Yeganeh Torbati; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Kieran Murray and Leslie Adler

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