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The Americans waiting to welcome refugees who may never come

As the Trump administration asks the Supreme Court (again) to shut the door on refugees, communities around the US are still trying to roll out the welcome mat.

A church volunteer tours an empty apartment in Virginia that had been furnished for a Syrian refugee family held up by Trump’s travel ban.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In Washington, the Trump administration is fighting hard to maintain its temporary ban on refugees entering the United States who don’t have a close family relationship with someone already here.

Federal courts have ruled that refugees shouldn’t be included in the government’s travel ban, which went into effect in modified form at the end of June thanks to the Supreme Court, because each refugee has a “bona fide relationship” with the US-based nonprofit that has agreed to resettle her: to find her housing and a job, help her learn English, and acclimate her to America, all within 90 days.

The Trump administration argues that refugee-resettlement organizations aren’t a “bona fide” relationship.

But in northwestern Arkansas, nearly a thousand miles from the court wrangling over the definition of “bona fide,” the relationship is something you could see and touch — even after the ban went into effect this summer.

As long as you could open the lock to the storage space.

Whole apartments’ worth of furniture — donated by well-meaning Americans, and designated for a family of refugees who were supposed to come to the US months ago — was put under lock and key when the travel ban went into effect.

The furniture was collected by teams of volunteers for the local refugee-resettlement nonprofit, Canopy NWA. Each team has been tasked with mentoring a refugee family through — and beyond — the 90-day “resettlement” period,

In Arkansas, where Donald Trump was elected by more than 20 points, hundreds of residents are ready to welcome refugees. So are other communities around the country, as I discovered when I talked to resettlement organizations when the travel ban went into effect.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is not.

Volunteers “call or email us when they see something in the news, ‘So what does this mean for our family?’” Canopy executive director Emily Crane Linn said over the summer. “And we’ll have to tell them, ‘Well, I don’t know, but I think it might be a little longer than we were expecting.’”

Since January, Linn and everyone else working with local resettlement agencies have faced a heartbreaking back and forth: A week after the first travel ban went into effect, it was put on hold by federal judges. On March 6, Trump proposed a new executive order and the federal government (and resettlement agencies) prepared for its implementation. Two weeks later, that version got put on hold in court. In late June, the Supreme Court abruptly allowed the ban to partially go into effect, and the federal government decided the Supreme Court allowed it to ban most refugees. In July, that policy was challenged in court, put on hold for four days, and then put back in place.

At various times over the course of the fiscal year, Canopy NWA’s expected refugee intake has been 100, 50, 65, and, as far as they could tell after the Supreme Court ruling, 53 to 55.

“We’re on this massive roller coaster together,” Linn says — a metaphor that keeps coming up in conversations with resettlement workers — “and we’re all kind of a little nauseous at this point.”

The Trump resistance has marshaled against the refugee ban at the local level — demonstrating that America isn’t really like that. The sentiment is powerful. But it only goes so far: At the end of the day, the federal government is making the rules.

Messages like this (from a protest in Los Angeles) have become a staple of the anti-Trump “resistance.”
Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty

Settling refugees has always been a local endeavor. Now it’s an opportunity to take on Trump.

The federal government is in charge of deciding which refugees get to resettle in the United States each year, and putting them through the exhaustive, two-year vetting process. But once a refugee’s travel to the US is finally booked, taking care of her becomes a local job.

Resettlement agencies get federal funding for each refugee they work with to find a permanent place for the refugee to live; enroll children in school and parents in English-language classes; find jobs for men and women who may not speak English or be well-educated; and help refugees sign up for public assistance to help ends meet.

Resettlement is often the best possible option for refugees — in a world where many refugees are languishing in camps for years or decades, the chance to start life anew in a new country, and be helped to integrate into a new community, is fiercely coveted. And for decades, the US has been the world leader in refugee resettlement; historically, half of all refugees who got resettled were resettled in the US.

But on the ground, it’s an extremely tall order. And it’s one that resettlement agencies can’t do on their own: They need employers who are willing to take on refugee workers, people who are willing to offer temporary or permanent housing, volunteers to just take refugees grocery shopping and show them where the local schools are.

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Posted by Canopy NWA on Monday, July 31, 2017

Canopy NWA’s outreach coordinator Lauren Snodgrass tells of how the group started organically in 2015, when a bunch of local conversations about the global refugee crisis metastasized into a plan to actually build an agency and start resettling refugees themselves.

Then it became a political issue. The president of the United States and his government has broadcast the message far and wide: America is no longer greeting refugees with open arms. Many communities — in red states as well as blue — mobilized and are more determined than ever to welcome refugees.

“Not every community that has refugees has lots of protests and violence toward refugees. It’s not happening where we’re at,” says Jennifer Foy, who runs Church World Services’ refugee resettlement office in High Point, North Carolina. When refugees come to High Point — with their knowledge of the US limited to what they’ve seen on TV — they often ask her, “Does America still want me?” or “Am I safe in America?” But once they interact with real live Americans, “the more comfortable they feel, the more settled and confident.”

Obviously, though, interest and awareness of refugee issues isn’t spread evenly throughout a community. “Two years ago,” says Foy, “most people couldn’t have given you a definition of refugees, and they didn’t have any concept of whether there were refugees in their community.”

Regardless of how liberal or conservative a place might be, a lot of people who might support refugees in the abstract didn’t really know there was a way to help them in their everyday lives.

Foy’s group has tripled its fundraising totals from last year, including “people I didn’t know had a heart to support this,” she says. In Arkansas, a town hall meeting hastily convened by Canopy drew 400 people — “the police had to come manage traffic as people left,” says Linn. “It was incredible.”

Posted by Canopy NWA on Thursday, February 2, 2017

When then-Gov. Mike Pence tried to ban Syrian refugees from Indiana, the grassroots backlash propelled so much interest in resettlement that Cole Varga, the director of Exodus Refugee Immigration in Indianapolis, planned to open a new office in Bloomington this year — a plan that, he says, “the whole city of Bloomington” was enthusiastically behind.

With Trump’s executive orders, those plans have been put on hold, without a new timetable for when refugees will be able to come to town.

“We’re exhausted. We don’t want to exhaust our supporters.”

The problem was that the same refugee ban that had spurred volunteers’ interest took away the most obvious ways they could get involved.

“It feels like every time the ban gets stayed, the whole community is just swelling with excitement and encouragement,” Linn says. “And then every time that gets overturned or there’s a new executive order or whatever, we all just kind of plummet together into disappointment and discouragement.”

“Frankly, it makes us look flaky,” Rona Buchalter, of the Jewish group HIAS’s Philadelphia resettlement office, says. “We’re all like, ‘Great, you’re all ready to do this! Oh, sorry, we don’t have anybody.”

The brunt of the disappointment falls on relatives of blocked refugees — who may just have come themselves but who might not fall under the Trump administration’s definition of a “close family relationship.” Canopy just resettled two Congolese families who were able to arrive before the ban went into effect, while a third branch of their extended family was hit by the ban.

In a best-case scenario, some groups are taking the ban as an opportunity to focus on refugees who’ve already arrived, and that could result in those refugees being better prepared for their new lives in America than they otherwise would be.

“If we’re working with multiple families at the same time,” says Ana Maria Teixeira of IRC Miami, “it’s basically, ‘Go go go, you have to meet all these targets. But now we have room to say we can go at their pace and make it a little easier, give them a little more time to adapt.”

Teixeira’s agency is taking the summer to expand its employment programs to include more intensive English-language courses, for example; the goal is “not just to serve the folks that have just come and get that first employment, but that they’re actually ready for job upgrades,” she says.

A refugee tutored by a volunteer in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 2016.
Andrew Cullen/Washington Post via Getty

The threat isn’t just the ban. It’s what comes after.

Even the organizations that are treating the refugee ban as an opportunity to learn how to better integrate refugees into the community, though, acknowledge that all the community support in the world doesn’t matter if the federal government has slammed the door.

“At the end of the day,” says Teixeira of the optimistic Miami office, “you do want to make sure the refugees are actually coming in.”

Eventually, the 120-day refugee ban will run out. But the question of how many refugees will be allowed to enter the US for the next year, and afterward, will be entirely up to the Trump administration. And if the travel ban orders are any indication, the administration wants to cut refugee admissions in half from 2016 levels — from 100,000 to 50,000.

The prospect of serving tens of thousands fewer refugees doesn’t sit well with those who have devoted their lives to resettlement.

Kay Bellor, at the national office of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, is concerned that the commitment to resettling any refugees, period, might be in danger.

After 9/11, she points out, the government also put a temporary pause on refugee admissions while it reviewed security procedures. But the Bush administration’s attitude toward resettlement organizations, she says, was, “‘We're going to work together to make it strong again.’ Nobody thought the US would back away from its historic leadership.”

That’s not the case anymore, she worries. The career civil servants that LIRS and other organizations work with are “extraordinary,” but it’s the political appointees above them, and in the White House, who set the bottom line — and she worries that the program is on “some guy’s whiteboard for destruction.”

“It's not like there's not a conservative case for resettlement. But does the Trump administration have a case for it? That's what I worry about.”

Welcome notes hang outside the door of a Syrian refugee resettled in Indianapolis (by Exodus Refugee Immigration) in 2016.
James Brosher/Washington Post via Getty

“They’re going to lose interest”

Resettlement agencies are working to keep volunteers engaged; in Miami, Teixeira (of the International Rescue Committee’s resettlement office) tries to offer “hope that it doesn’t mean that the family will never travel. It’s just gonna take a little bit longer.”

But they don’t actually know that for sure.

HIAS Philadelphia has gotten some local landlords to open up affordable housing for refugees — but now they don’t have refugees to put in those houses. “As private businesspeople, we can’t ask them to keep properties open indefinitely,” Rona Buchalter says. “And they’re going to lose interest, and they’re going to move on to something else.”

The travel ban isn’t simply a four-month delay after which everything will return to normal.

“People can deal with delays,” says Emily Crane Linn. “It’s not the end of the world to tell somebody, ‘Sorry, your family’s been delayed four months or six months, but they’re coming after four months for sure.’ But it’s another to say, ‘They might not come for a year or more.’”

Or ever.

The policy whiplash is threatening a partnership with a local LGBTQ organization in Philadelphia that’s agreed to provide mentors to LGBTQ would-be refugees. “They have all these community members who are ready to mentor people as they come in,” Buchalter says, “and there’s nobody coming in.”

Communities can’t just stay frozen in a pose of welcome for months while all of this gets sorted out. At a certain point, people have to move on with their lives.

Posted by Exodus Refugee Immigration on Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Take those Arkansas storage lockers full of furniture, and the volunteers who’re paying monthly fees to store it. “Should they go ahead and donate everything they’ve got to a thrift store and try again once we tell them for sure we know that [the refugees] are coming?” Linn asks. “Or should they hunker down and just pay for that storage unit for however long it takes?”

Ultimately, she says, each of her volunteer teams comes to a different conclusion about how long they’re willing to hold on to their preparations to welcome refugees who might never come. The people who want to demonstrate that America is a better and more welcoming place than Donald Trump says have to decide, month by month and day by day, just how sure they are that’s actually the case.

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