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State Department Faulted for Redoing Web Page Aimed at Helping Refugees

Spokesman says modernization effort merely relocated material tracked by transparency group.

The Trump administration, in pursuit of policies to reduce immigration and the numbers of asylum seekers, has removed or repackaged materials designed by previous administrations to help refugees, according to a new study by a transparency group.

Two “Frequently Asked Question” fact sheets, one written on the final day of the Obama administration and a second in 2018, are now gone from the State Department’s website, as revealed by the Sunshine Foundation’s Web Integrity Project.

The documented changes affected the online presentation of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, an interagency effort managed by State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration that was suspended for 120 days beginning in June 2017, and later restored with tightened screening.

The details of the missing FAQs are being published first by Government Executive as part of a series by the nonprofit monitoring policy-based changes or removals of material on agency websites executed often without public notice.

They come as the number of world refugees admitted to the United States under Trump’s reduced-quota policy fell from 53,716 under the program in fiscal 2017, to 22,491 in fiscal 2018, the Web Integrity Project reported.

The FAQs, the concept for which date back at least to the George W. Bush administration, “were presented in a way that avoided politicized language and legalese, and appeared to be intended for broad public consumption,” the researchers said. And “although not online for long, the FAQs were widely cited in academic literature and used as a key authority in many of the amicus curiae briefs filed in opposition to Trump's immigration” executive orders in 2017.

The tone in the removed fact sheets was more philosophical and celebratory than the Trump administration’s more sober declarative language describing the refugee programs. “Every year, the United States provides opportunities to thousands of the world's most vulnerable refugees to resettle in the U.S., in a program endorsed by each president annually since 1980 through a Presidential Determination and notification to Congress,” said the version published on the last day of the Obama administration. “The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is in keeping with our proud history of being a nation of immigrants and refugees, and is an important, enduring demonstration of our commitment to international humanitarian principles. The United States is the largest refugee resettlement country in the world, admitting approximately two-thirds of all refugee resettlement referrals worldwide each year.”

The 2017 version, removed sometime between December 2017 and January 2018, also contained “more content than previous years, with additional detail about security screening, the cost of the program, and the rarity of resettlement from the country of first refuge,” the Web Integrity Project noted. It also “appears to be written for Americans, which is a different audience than previous versions, which appeared to be aimed at potential applicants.”

The 2018 fact sheet, retrieved through searches on the Internet “Wayback Machine,” was online perhaps for just four or five months, disappearing sometime in May or June 2018. But a Google search showed it was cited in peer-reviewed and law review articles about policy, medical care for refugees and family-professional partnerships, the study said. (A current search on State’s website links to a general notice about website modernization.)

Asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson told Government Executive, “In April 2019, the Department of State updated its website. As part of this broader effort,” the population bureau redesigned its pages “to update and better organize the information.” The information on the refugee program is now available on another page via links under the tab “Discover More,” the official said. “The substantive information we provide is like that of past fact sheets, including information about eligibility criteria, ways to access the program, family member travel, the steps of the process, and domestic resettlement.”

In addition, the official said, interested readers can consult State’s annual Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions.

Web Integrity Project Director Sarah John responded by saying, "Those materials are not nearly as expansive as the removed factsheets and were added a year after the factsheets were removed. Furthermore, the State Department has not established redirects from the widely cited factsheet URLs to the 'replacement' content, meaning that academic literature and court filings are littered with dead links."