For Refugees And Advocates, An Anxious Wait For Clarity On Trump's Policy

Nov 15, 2016
Originally published on November 15, 2016 3:27 pm

Donald Trump's election has sent tremors through America's refugee advocate community, and caused fear and uncertainty among the most recently resettled refugees, the Syrians. They listened with alarm as candidate Trump called them "terrorists" and blamed them, incorrectly, for violent attacks in America.

"That rhetoric has had an impact," says Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, a legal aid program. "Trump has been successful in politicizing refugee admissions in a way that they have not been politicized before."

The United States is the world's leading resettlement country for refugees; historically, the program has had bipartisan support and has been a mainstay of U.S. foreign policy.

Syrian resettlement was extremely limited during the first years of a war that began as a peaceful protest against a repressive regime in 2011. The number of Syrians resettled in the U.S. was 105 in 2014 and rose to 1,682 in 2015.

In his last year in office, Obama has boosted that number substantially, and set a goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016. In September, his administration led a global summit to address an unprecedented migrant crisis. The president increased the U.S. resettlement target for 2017 by more than 30 percent, to 110,000 refugees from the world's most vulnerable populations.

All this could change under a Trump administration.

"When it comes to resettlement, the president has all the authority," explains Jennifer Quigley, a refugee advocate with Human Rights First. "Our big concern is that it could be none at all or it could be that there is a discrimination against Arabs or Muslims or Somalis," she says, pointing out targets in Trump's anti-refugee campaign speeches.

During the campaign, Trump said he planned to suspend the Syrian refugee program, and threatened to deport those already here. At a rally in New Hampshire last year, he told a cheering crowd, "I'm putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of a mass migration, that if I win, they are going back."

"Everyone is terrified, they are scared, they are shocked, " says a refugee named Mohammed, describing the Syrian refugee community's reaction to the U.S. election. He asked to withhold his last name because of fears for family back home. He also fears that Trump will carry out the hard line threat; rounding up Syrian refugees and kicking them out.

"You brought them here because they are refugees, they don't have homes anymore," he says. "Send them back where? To hell?"

Mohammed and his 17-year-old daughter, Lulu, are resettled in central New Jersey, in a small apartment where cable news channels are the constant background ambience. They arrived in the U.S. in 2014 and were granted asylum in 2015.

A successful Damascus businessman, Mohammed fled his homeland, fearing arrest and torture for his support of an uprising that began as a peaceful protest against an oppressive Syrian regime.

"Half of my family are back in Syria," he says. His wife and a younger daughter are still living in Damascus. "This is going to destroy my hope."

Mohammed hoped his appeal for family reunion would be granted after he obtained asylum status for himself and Lulu. Now, the election throws official approval and a family reunion in doubt.

After a campaign of furious soundbites and often contradictory policy directions, Trump has yet to fill in the details of his comprehensive refugee resettlement program.

"Admission of refuges from war-torn areas of the world has been a key component of our foreign policy for decades and decades," says IRAP's Heller. "To give that up now will seriously damage our credibility with our allies abroad."

Advocates argue that backtracking on American commitments could encourage other countries to follow the U.S. example, deepening a humanitarian crisis for allies and giving talking points to Muslim militants who claim that the West is hostile to Islam.

But bipartisan support for refugee resettlement unraveled after last November's Paris terrorist attacks, when early reporting erroneously identified one of the attackers as a Syrian refugee. Support further declined following last December's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., and a mass shooting in June at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Refugees had no role in these attacks, but GOP lawmakers began to call for a pause in resettlement and so did a majority of U.S. governors. Trump's hard-line campaign rhetoric, specifically against Syrians, resonated with a fearful GOP's voting base.

Now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House, refugee advocates fear there will be severe funding cuts for their work.

The first outlines of President-elect Trump's policy have come in a document from his transition team called "The First Day Project" with a to-do list for January 2017. Refugees come near the top of the list, "a top-five priority of the transition team," says Quigley. The policy includes the intention to "suspend immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur."

"Terror-prone" would certainly describe Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, the three countries that produce half of the world's refugees.

After Trump's win, refugee communities across the country have turned to teachers, immigration lawyers and other advocates for guidance on managing deep anxieties. Many have been in the country a short time, a few months to a few years, and have never been through a U.S. election, much less one that's unparalleled even for Americans.

"President-elect Trump said in his acceptance speech that he wants to treat everyone fairly. And I hope that for the sake of everyone, he will hew to that promise — as it pertains to both U.S. citizens and to immigrants," says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University.

His advice for refugees: Don't panic. "Nothing is going to happen immediately," he says about deportation fears.

Refugees are legal residents, he explains, with constitutional rights. Even a U.S. president does not have the power and authority to "round them up and deport them," says Yale-Loehr. "If he thinks they are a terrorist threat, he would have to say a specific refugee poses a threat and have some evidence to back it up."

Yale-Loehr also scoffs at Trump's often repeated campaign charge that when refugees are admitted to the United States, "We don't know who these people are."

He says the vetting process for refugees is designed to identify security threats. There is an enhanced layer of security vetting for Syrians.

"Syrian refuges have to go through a 21-step vetting process before they are allowed to come to the U.S. It goes to three different agencies," says Yale-Loehr. "I am not sure what any president could do to make it even more stringent than it already is."

The U.S. takes in about a million immigrants each year, admitted legally to work and study. This is separate from refugee arrivals, who are fleeing war, persecution or political chaos. The annual number of refugee admissions is set by the president.

Refugee advocate Chris George says the campaign rhetoric could undermine a program that has resettled 750,00 refugees since Sept. 11, 2001 — with not one arrest for a domestic terrorism charge.

"This all goes back to a fundamental lack of information about the refugee program and lack of contact," he says.

George is the executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a nonprofit agency in New Haven, Conn. His organization has resettled more than 250 refugees this year in a distinctive program that partners with private groups to place refugee families in communities, "so people can meet them and have them live down the street and walk to school with their children."

Most Americans have never met a refugee, says George, and that is part of the problem. He places some of the blame on the State Department, which encourages resettlement programs to operate at a low profile.

"If people throw up their arms, politicians included, and say, 'We don't know anything about this refugee program, we don't know who these people are, we don't know if they've been vetted,' well, the information is out there. It's out of ignorance that people say those things."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Donald Trump as a candidate pledged to sharply limit the number of refugees the United States takes in. He talked about ending resettlement from Syria, maybe even expelling some Syrians already here. It's a security issue, Trump told us, saying immigration from terror-prone regions has to stop if there's not more vetting. So what will President Trump actually do? Let's talk about that with NPR's Deborah Amos. She's been talking to people who help bring refugees to this country and also speaking to some refugees themselves. Deb, good morning.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So this was certainly a flash point in the campaign. And, I guess, could we start by just reminding us what the United States has been doing to this point?

AMOS: So over the last year, some 13,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled - mostly women and children - across 38 states. Now, resettlement continues, but there are 5 million Syrian refugees out there, so the U.S. numbers are really small compared to Europe. They are hosting about a million - and U.S. allies in the Middle East even more. The campaign debate was about the numbers and security. Clinton wanted more. Trump said he would shut down the program. He called Syrian refugees a Trojan horse for Islamist militants. And he repeatedly said we don't know who these people are. So if he sticks to his campaign pledge, he risks alienating Middle East allies - they're now overwhelmed with this refugee burden - and part of his base. There are a lot of evangelical Christians who are pro-refugee, and those churches play a role in resettling Syrian refugees.

GREENE: And you've been speaking to some evangelical groups who've helped bring refugees in. You've been speaking to some refugee families themselves. I mean, have - have they been reacting yet to this - this campaign victory by Trump?

AMOS: Oh, deep anxiety - certainly among refugees. They've been asking, is he going to kick me out? Here's one refugee. His name is Mohammed. He's been here for two years. He's here with his 17-year-old daughter. She's in high school. He actually has a high-tech job in New York already. No last names because they've got family back in Syria. He's applied for his wife and his young daughter to join him. He's really worried that this election means that he cannot reunite with his family. You get a sense of his emotion.

MOHAMMED: It's, like, very shocking, very disappointing, very terrifying. One of his promises for his supporters is that he is going to send the Syrians who already arrived back to their country, which is something amazing. I mean, you brought them here because they are refugees. They don't have home anymore. And you are threatening them to send them back. Send them back where? To hell?

AMOS: Let me point out that in Trump's first 100-day document, he doesn't mention Syrians in particular. He doesn't even talk about banning Muslims, as he did on the campaign trail. Rather, what he talks about is no refugees from terror-prone countries, so we have to see what that means.

GREENE: We should just say there that, listening to that voice, Mohammed, he - referring to Trump, saying he wants to send those Syrians back. He's talking about himself, potentially.

AMOS: He is talking about himself, and he's talking about others. They heard that on the campaign trail. You hear from refugee advocates they're much more worried about overall numbers. President Obama sets the number of refugees to come to the U.S. He said 110,000 in 2017, and that's from all over the world.

GREENE: OK, not just Syria. That's from everywhere.

AMOS: Yes. President Trump could actually slash that number. He has the prerogative to say what countries refugees come from, who can come into the country. Now, worldwide, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia make up almost half of all refugees, so those are certainly countries that come under that definition of terror-prone.

GREENE: And the terror-prone could actually be an argument that Trump could use to expel people already here.

AMOS: Well, I spoke to Stephen Yale-Loehr. He teaches immigration law at Cornell. And he says that if President Trump believes Syrian refugees do pose a terrorist threat, he'd actually have to prove it. He would have to show evidence one by one.

STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: He could not claim that all Syrian refugees in the United States are terrorist threats and round them up and deport them without some kind of constitutional due process hearing.

AMOS: Now, Yale-Loehr has been fielding calls for the past two days from refugees and from advocates.

YALE-LOEHR: People are nervous, and I'm trying to calm them down, to say don't panic. We cannot round people up and then send them out immediately without some kind of hearing.

GREENE: Well let's just take Trump's argument here. And it's an argument made not just by him, but by many U.S. governors as well - that the vetting process just is not strong enough and that people could slip through who are very dangerous. I mean, what is the process right now?

AMOS: Let's talk about Syrians in particular because, in 2011, the Obama administration put in place this enhanced vetting for Syrians - 21 steps, three different security agencies. They're vetted by counterterrorism specialists. And that vetting continues until a refugee lands at an American airport. So advocates who work with refugees, they challenge the rhetoric that we don't know who they are. The bigger problem is most Americans don't know anything about the refugee program. It's done very quietly.

It's been in place since the Second World War. It usually has bipartisan support. It's backed by faith-based groups, including those evangelicals. Let's hear from Chris George. He heads an official resettlement program in Connecticut. And he says that is the problem, in part, because this refugee resettlement program gets no public attention, and that is by design.

CHRIS GEORGE: The State Department is partly to blame for that. They have encouraged refugee resettlement programs to operate at a low profile. They have not done enough public education. If people throw up their arms, politicians included, and say, we don't know anything about this refugee program, we don't know who these refugees are, well, the information is out there. It's out of ignorance that people say those things.

GREENE: The State Department, have they kept this low-profile because they were worried about the reaction that we've seen from Donald Trump and his supporters?

AMOS: It has been a long-term policy to keep it quiet.

GREENE: So maybe Donald Trump becoming president is the moment where things become more out in the open and some refugee advocates take this as an opportunity to make their case more?

AMOS: That's exactly what Chris George is saying. He wants to invite the next president to come to his Connecticut office to sit down and talk with refugees. He says Donald Trump should come and meet them face to face. And he argues that he will see that this has been a successful program and that the United States cannot afford to slash these numbers.

GREENE: OK, that's NPR's Deborah Amos in New York. Deb, thank you very much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.