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Trump’s travel bans keep orphans from US foster families

Mike Gougherty and Julie Rajagopal posed with their 16-year-old foster child from Eritrea, one of the last refugees to make it to the United States.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Tianna Rooney has already bought the poster board for the sign she’ll wave when the 16-year-old refugee boy her family is taking in arrives in the United States. Rooney knows the words of welcome she’ll write on it, in the teen’s native language from the African country of Eritrea.

But Rooney’s family is leaving the sign blank, for now. She and her husband, Todd Rooney, fear actually writing the words ‘‘Welcome Home’’ could break her heart.

The foster son they’re waiting for is part of a small, three-decade-old US program for so-called unaccompanied refugee minors that has been halted by a series of new refugee bans and travel limits imposed by the Trump administration in the name of fighting terrorism.


The US travel bans have stranded more than 100 refugee children who were already matched to waiting American foster families. Without parents or other adult relatives, those kids are living on their own in countries of temporary refuge, in limbo while their US foster parents hope for a court ruling that will allow the children to finish their journeys.

Since the June day a refugee agency matched the Rooneys with a foster son, which turned out to be the same day of the first Supreme Court ruling barring him, ‘‘we have experienced this very unexpected ride of grief in our family,’’ says Rooney, 39, a family therapist and mother of two from Brighton, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.

Meanwhile, the boy, who fled his country at 13 to avoid military conscription of children, fends for himself on the streets in his temporary refuge in another African capital, with no phone or Internet for the Rooneys to reach him to explain the delay. ‘‘There’s part of me that really hopes he knows a family wants him,’’ Tianna Rooney says.


Since the 1980s, the program for orphaned refugees has brought in more than 6,000 children, including 203 last year.

‘‘These are kids on their own, and struggling to survive,’’ said Elizabeth Foydel, policy counsel with the International Refugee Assistance Project, a Washington, D.C., legal-aid group for refugees.

The program for orphaned refugee children from around the world is different from one started by the Obama administration in 2014 for Central American children fleeing a surge in violence there.

In the program for unaccompanied refugee children, kids eking out a living by themselves in a refugee camp or elsewhere must first come to the attention of a United Nations agency, which may choose to refer them to the USfoster program, especially if the children are deemed to be particularly vulnerable wherever they are now. The children must then pass US security screenings and meet other requirements and win a match with an American foster family or group home.

But Trump administration orders and court rulings interpreting them are now barring refugees with no close family in the United States.

The child refugees newly blocked include five Ethiopian sisters, ages 9 to 16. The girls lost both parents in 2009 and have faced abuse in the war zone of neighboring South Sudan and in Sudanese cities, said Jessica Jones, policy counsel for the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Along with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Lutherans are one of two US groups running the program on behalf of the State Department.


In San Francisco, Web designer Julie Rajagopal and husband, Mike Gougherty, a senior planner for a regional ferry system, are two of the lucky ones. The 16-year-old they are fostering also fled forced military service in Eritrea, at 13. When he landed in March, he was among the last refugee foster children to make it into the United States. On a summer day, the teen strolled with the couple in a San Francisco park.

In Michigan, the Rooneys stack clothes in the room they set aside for the eagerly awaited new family member. Tianna Rooney recently got out the poster board; after a concerned look from her husband, she put it away. ‘‘We want to think positive thoughts,’’ he said. ‘‘But without . . . setting ourselves up for a heartache.’’