Refugee resettlement in Hudson Valley uncertain following Trump executive order

A Somali school in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya

President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees will affect resettlement in the Mid-Hudson Valley slated to begin this month.

The order prevents citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen – from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days and those from a seventh, Syria, from entering indefinitely, and suspends all refugee resettlement for 120 days.

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Locally, a refugee resettlement plan was announced last fall. Coordinated by Church World Service (CWS) in partnership with numerous local churches, faith-based organizations and colleges, it was scheduled to begin resettling 80 individuals in a 50-mile radius of its newly opened Poughkeepsie office this month. Most refugees were to come from the Congo and Syria, as well as Special Immigrant Visa holders from Iraq. Other cases included resettlement of family members of refugees from other parts of the world, like Latin America.

According to Sarah Krause, senior director of CWS’s Immigration and Refugee Program, one refugee family from the Congo will arrive in the next few days. That family got in just under the wire – any travel plans for refugees after this coming Thursday were canceled by the order, including a girl from Latin America who was to join her mother here.

Krause said the order will have “a tremendous impact on individuals who are already in process.” The 120-day suspension could delay resettlement of refugees by many months or even years, said Krause, because the various security and health clearances that must be completed before traveling are only valid for a limited period. For a family, the window of time when all can travel can be short because it generally takes longer for men to get security clearances than women, which means a wife’s clearance would lapse before her husband’s.

Nationwide, there are more than 6,000 individuals that have been booked for travel, “meaning that they have already completed the extremely rigorous vetting process and have been told the locations to which they will resettle to the United States, and are now being told they can’t come,” said Krause.

The effect will vary. Refugees, by definition, are petitioning the U.S. from an asylum nation, having already fled their homes. They may be living in a city or a camp. Resettlement candidates have completed a vetting process that takes up to two years, though they may have been refugees for far longer— since the early 1990s for some Somalis, even longer for others. Those living in cities may have begun selling items to build up their savings. For those in resettlement camps, the consequences could be worse. “When they are being sent to the camps, they are being sent back to nothing,” said Krause. “They would have already given up their shelters that many of them have had for more than 15 years because that’s how long they’ve been living in exile. And they’re going back to uncertainty.”

Because some may be returning to a dangerous situation, “this is a life-saving program,” said Krause.

Trump’s Executive Order also caps the number of refugees the U.S. will accept at 50,000 for the 2017 fiscal year (ending Sept. 30), less than half the previous year’s limit of 110,000. Nearly 30,000 have already been admitted. It’s unclear how the new cap will affect the number of refugees that will be resettled locally.

The process

Refugee resettlement in the United States involves the UN, the federal government, nine non-governmental organizations and scores of local volunteer groups. The process is spelled out in an infographic on WhiteHouse.gov (or it was— since the transition the page has been moved to the archive of the Obama White House). Refugees must first appeal to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where they are screened with identifying documents and interviews, and (for Syrians and other Middle Eastern candidates) receive an iris scan. Less than 1 percent of the global refugee population is considered a “strong candidates for refugee resettlement” and moves beyond this step. For those seeking resettlement in the U.S., the next step is a federally funded resettlement support center, where they’re subject to security checks from the National Counterterrorism Center/Intelligence Community, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. The screening looks for indicators like:

  • Information that the individual is a security risk
  • Connections to known bad actors
  • Outstanding warrants/immigration or criminal violations

Next comes in-person interviews with Homeland Security and fingerprint collection, with the results cross-referenced with databases in the DHS and Defense Department. If they make it through this and a final medical check, candidates attend cultural orientation classes and are assigned a destination. At this step, the non-governmental organizations become involved. They meet on a regular basis and review the information on refugees cleared by the federal government for resettlement and determine on a case-by-case basis which organization will handle each.

“Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted of any individual entering the United States,” said Krause. She hopes the Trump Administration comes to the conclusion that the current review process is sufficient and the program will resume much as before, though it’s unlikely that Syrian refugees — among the most desperate — will be accepted any time soon.

In addition to security concerns, another objection to refugee resettlement is financial: that the U.S. should help its own citizens first before those from other countries. Refugee resettlement is funded in part through federal taxpayer dollars. In addition to the salaries of the federal employees of the agencies that vet and process applicants, the organizations assisting in resettlement received approximately $2,000 per refugee last year, according to Krause. A portion of this helps fund the operations of those organizations, and another portion goes directly to the material needs of refugees, such as housing. (Plane fare is covered in a loan which refugees must repay.) $2,000 doesn’t go very far, so organizations need to fundraise privately, and volunteers, usually from local faith-based organizations, pitch in with donations and in-person assistance.

Like any resident, refugees are eligible for social services if they need them. According to Krause, the vast majority are self-sufficient within 180 days, paying into the system, not taking from it.

Polarized reaction

At this point, the old whitehouse.gov infographic, in white letters on a forest-green background, cheerfully concludes: “Refugees are woven into the rich fabric of American society!”

That’s on hold for the moment. Following Trump’s order, protests raged at airports where travelers were detained and Democrats, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, condemned the action as contrary to the nation’s values, while supporters defended it as a sensible temporary measure to ensure national security which was being blown out of proportion and falsely linked to religion. (Members of the former group use the hashtag “#muslimban” and the latter use “#terroristban.”)

CWS and its fellow organizations have added their voices to the protest.

Jen Smyers, CWS director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program, said the order was “akin to President Trump taking a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty.”

“Lives are at stake and history will judge us based on what we do in this moment to save innocent refugees who are depending on our decisive action,” said David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee.

Miliband also mentioned the millions of refugees that have been successfully resettled through governments and non-governmental organizations since World War II. The cataclysmic results of that war compelled the creation of the UN and the international refugee resettlement infrastructure. By reaching back to the roots of the post-war order, such a defense fits together with invocations of NATO and the Geneva Convention made in the face of a new administration intent on challenging assumptions that have gone unquestioned for 70 years.

Krause also hearkened back to that time, starkly pointing out that the executive order was signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“We had vowed never again, and yet, here we are,” she said.

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